Our national “staycation” is coming to an end and people are slowly, many reluctantly, emerging to a world that may appear the same on the surface but has fundamentally got harder.

We have watched with something approaching national pride as our public institutions have held up, our governments having worked together with the public and averted even our best-case fatality scenarios for the first wave of the pandemic.

Those still in work have mastered the new juggle, re-evaluating their priorities and moving their focus closer to home; those whose careers have been disrupted have had a short-term buffer of government support. But while there has been a unity of purpose around the response to the health crisis, the reality of the costs we will pay for our collective response are beginning to hit home.

Whereas in previous research we have picked up high levels of approval for the government and growing trust in our public institutions, this week we find levels of anxiety, trepidation and suspicion around what comes next.

Maybe it’s the change of season, but I fear it’s more than that. And for the majority of Australians the labour market is ground zero, as this week’s Essential Report illustrates.

For those in work, there is a recognition that the era of regular progress in career and remuneration is facing at least a temporary pause.

For those new to joblessness, the response is even more dire. One third believe it will be a long road back into the labour market, while one in 10 can only see a total brick wall.

Once the Covid-19 outbreak is over and restrictions are eased, how long do you think it will be before you are back in paid work?

Men and the young are particularly pessimistic they will have an instant “snap back” into work, while older workers of both genders are not expecting anything resembling pre-pandemic normality.

As for those who were already looking for work before the pandemic hit, morale is even lower, with very few seeing a way back into the labour market.

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements about looking for work when the Covid-19 restrictions are eased?

These findings point to the complexity of the next phase of the pandemic and the wicked decisions that will need to be made over the coming weeks.

While the prime minister is talking about fast-tracking the wind-back of support for jobkeeper and free childcare, there is no sense in these figures that it’s time to return to business as usual. To do so will be a long-term recipe for economic dislocation.

There is another set of figures in this week’s Essential Report that fit into this darker narrative of post-lockdown politics: the high number of Australians ready to accept the Wuhan lab theory and other conspiracy theories.

Here are some things people have been saying about Covid-19. They’re all things that some people say are true and others say aren’t true. To what extent do you believe each of the following to true or false?

While Australia leads a global push for an international investigation into the outbreak there is strong public suspicion of the origins of the virus and an even stronger sense the Chinese government is hiding the extent of the outbreak there.

There are also surprisingly high levels of support for other conspiracy theories being touted, but it is the Sino connection that bears scrutiny because, without diminishing the reasonable need to understand the outbreak, arguments about truth and accountability of another nation can be a potent political tool.

Combined with economic despair and dislocation it provides a heady brew for unscrupulous populist leaders who will take their cue from the flailing US president and seek to divert in division.

I’m not saying that is what is currently happening in Australia, but these numbers show how it might. And while Scott Morrison may have won the unifying persona for the past few weeks he’s shown he is not averse to donning more Trumpy garb in the past.

The cliché is that pandemics tell us a lot about ourselves. The first wave has been reaffirming about who we are as a nation but what comes next will be harder and we need to make sure we don’t allow our leaders to take the easy way out.

• Peter Lewis will be discussing this week’s Guardian Essential results with Katharine Murphy at 1pm on the Australia at Home’s Political Geekfest

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