In 2020, the risk of a pandemic became a reality. According to various surveys conducted by governments and businesses, the damage inflicted over the last year is severe and significant in all spheres of society.
It is in this context that the 16th edition of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has been published. The analysis centres on the risks and consequences of widening inequalities and societal fragmentation. In some cases, disparities in health outcomes, technology, or workforce opportunities are the direct result of the dynamics the pandemic created. In others, already-present societal divisions have widened, straining weak safety nets and economic structures beyond capacity.
Whether the gaps can be narrowed will depend on the actions taken in the wake of COVID-19 to rebuild with a view towards an inclusive and accessible future. Inaction on economic inequalities and societal divisiveness may further stall action on climate change, which remains an existential threat to humanity.
Growing societal fragmentation—manifested through persistent and emerging risks to human health, rising unemployment, widening digital divides, and youth disillusionment—can have severe consequences in an era of compounded economic, environmental, geopolitical and technological risks.
The immediate human and economic cost of COVID-19 is severe. It threatens to scale back years of progress on reducing poverty and inequality and to further weaken social cohesion and global cooperation. Interactions and abrupt shifts in the markets could lead to dire consequences and lost opportunities for large parts of the global population. Social unrest, political fragmentation and geopolitical tensions will shape the effectiveness of our responses to the other key threats of the next decade: cyberattacks, weapons of mass destruction and, most notably, climate change.
The 2021 Global Risks Report shares the results of the latest Global Risks Perception Survey, followed by analysis of growing social, economic and industrial divisions, their interconnections, and their implications on our ability to resolve major global risks requiring societal cohesion and global cooperation.
The report concludes with proposals for enhancing resilience, drawing from the lessons of the pandemic as well as historical risk analysis.
Among the highest likelihood risks in the next ten years are extreme weather, climate action failure and human-led environmental damage; as well as digital inequality and cybersecurity failure.
Among the highest impact risks in the next decade, the report highlights infectious diseases (China in the top spot), followed by climate action failure and other environmental risks; as well as weapons of mass destruction, livelihood crises and debt crises.
Finally, the report also points to potential employment and livelihood crises, widespread youth disillusionment, digital inequality, economic stagnation, human-made environmental damage, erosion of societal cohesion, and terrorist attacks.