“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

We are just a couple of weeks into 2021 and yet that famous opening from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities has never rung truer. On the one hand, we are seeing the roll-out of effective vaccines against a disease that little more than a year ago was unknown to science – a stunning tribute to human wisdom, and to the power of a belief in science. On the other hand, we have the incredible scenes of an enraged mob rampaging through the US Capitol, the fulcrum of what until recently was considered one of the most secure democracies on Earth.

Will wisdom or rage set our trajectory for the coming months and years? It is perhaps too early to say, but what is clear is that the covid-19 vaccines give us grounds for hope that some form of normality will return in 2021, despite all the questions still swirling around how exactly that can best be achieved (see “Is the UK right to delay the second dose of the covid-19 vaccines?”).

What is equally clear, however, is that if and when covid-19 is contained, business as usual isn’t an option. The pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the divisions, inequalities and structural weaknesses of societies around the world, not least in established Western liberal democracies such as the US and UK. Meanwhile, global problems such as climate change haven’t gone away – 2020, we now know, was the joint hottest year on record (see “Climate change: 2020 was the joint hottest year on record”).

“The pandemic has ruthlessly exposed divisions and inequalities around the world”

To see how best to move on, we would perhaps be wise to ask ourselves how we got here. Human development researcher Robert J. Sternberg makes the case that at least part of the problem lies in our faulty conceptions of what it means to be smart. Prioritising and rewarding a very limited idea of intelligence has exacerbated social, economic and racial inequalities, while fostering a “me first” culture that leaves us ill-equipped for the collaborative problem-solving we need if we are to survive and thrive as a species.

It is a bold, compelling hypothesis and such back-to-basics thinking may be exactly what we need if, to continue with Dickens’s words, a spring of hope is to follow this winter of despair.