Is life returning to pre-COVID trends: What does Google tell us?

Official data has many limitations. Standard macroeconomic indicators are quite difficult to compile and take a relatively long time to be collected. For instance, GDP data for the first quarter of the year is published at the end of the subsequent quarter. To assess developments in real time, one needs different data.

Many have resorted to using data that Google presents in its COVID-19 Community Mobile Reports. By means of anonymised data provided by apps on smart phones, these reports measure visitor numbers to specific locations every day and compare this with numbers in the period before the onset of the pandemic.

The data for Malta is very interesting. It confirms that the public’s reaction to the onset of the pandemic was of panic. Initially there was a run on shops selling groceries and on pharmacies. The drop in visitor numbers to other retail establishments and to recreational venues was dramatic and very quick. By early April 2020, there was a drop of three-quarters on pre-pandemic levels. The decline in traffic towards workplaces was quite similar, while mobility in residential areas rose.

By summer, movement to retail and recreation was back to pre-pandemic levels, even though traffic towards workplaces remained a fifth less. However, the reprief was quite brief and by September, transit to retail and recreation was back below normal levels, down by about a fifth compared to early 2020.

The runup to Christmas meant that much fewer people travelled to their workplace, while there was a very brief spike towards retail and recreational establishments. After that there was a significant drop again in January 2021 for the latter, while transit to groceries and pharmacies rose again. March saw another significant drop in visitor numbers to retail and recreational venues. Though not as substantial as the drop seen in early 2020, the decline in March was significant, with activity down by a half compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Then in May things changed dramatically. Visits to groceries and pharmacies continued to trend upwards strongly. While in 2020 it had taken two months for transit to retail and recreation to go from being 50% below to returning to pre-pandemic levels, in 2021 it took less than a month. At the end of May, for the first time this year, Google data indicate that visits to retail and recreation establishments were back to normal. Even more impressive was the fact that transit to workplaces broke the -20% mark, and for the first time since the pandemic started is hovering near 10% below pre-pandemic levels.

Even if one looks on a global level, the current situation in Malta appears to be quite exceptional. Around the world, visitor numbers to retail and recreation outlets remain quite low, while in Malta we are back to pre-pandemic levels. The worst situations are now in Asia, with Google data suggesting that mobility is between a third and a half of pre-pandemic levels. In Europe, Ireland and Germany have relatively weak levels and are stuck where Malta was in April. The situation is however not that dissimilar in Israel and the UK despite their high vaccination rates. Activity in the US has picked up more, while Poland and Sweden are just below pre-pandemic levels. Demark and Hungary are doing slightly better than Malta. Then there is New Zealand, where internal activity is seemingly unaffected by the pandemic.

Google data is showing that around the world, with some exceptions, activity is slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels in terms of mobility. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the level of sales will be back to pre-pandemic levels. This will depend crucially on how the financial situation of shoppers compares today with that before the pandemic struck. The data suggests that retailing may be slowly returning to pre-pandemic norms, while some degree of teleworking is being retained as transit to workplaces is more volatile in that some days it is below pandemic while in others it appears back to normal.  

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