Karl Marx once mused about ‘days into which 20 years are compressed’ in a letter to Friedrich Engels. With the world apparently transformed by coronavirus within weeks, it feels like such times. Covid-19 is wreaking havoc, from the global economy to sexuality (as people become paradoxically more isolated yet better connected in lockdown).
Though the first cases were in November, Sars-CoV-2 really began at the turn of the year, when the Chinese government informed the World Health Organization (WHO) on 31 December that a ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ had been detected, centred on a market in Wuhan. Within 10 days the highly infectious new illness had been identified as a coronavirus variant, similar to Sars and Mers, sources of two of the first pandemics of the 21st century. Though the Chinese authorities maintained that it had been brought under control, the infection rate was exponential in Wuhan and it quickly spread to Japan and Thailand. By late January it had reached the US and Europe. As Donald Trump was claiming it was ‘totally under control’, China put 50 million people under lockdown. Beijing was criticised for not acting quickly enough, particularly by Trump (though the US president was himself attacked for downplaying the pandemic). It also censored Chinese medics who raised the alarm, including one whistleblower who later died. However, its aggressive response – of draconian quarantine, electronic surveillance and rigorously tracing contacts – has been acknowledged as slowing Covid-19’s spread and buying time for other countries.
Forty-eight countries had reported cases by late February. As stock markets plummeted, Trump’s complacency gave way to pledging ‘the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus’. While Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was warning of the ‘darkest hour’, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, was defending Britain’s refusal to close schools or ban large gatherings, arguing that a second wave of infections later could be worse. Days later, Boris Johnson’s government abandoned this ‘herd immunity’ concept after epidemiological modelling by Imperial College London, under Prof Neil Ferguson, warned it could lead to 250,000 deaths in the UK. Isolating oneself at home and social distancing in public to give health services time to build up capacity now became the mantra. According to Prof Lawrence Freedman, of King’s College London, the British government’s tentative response to the pandemic compared with most of Europe, and eventual volte-face, was not ‘science-led’ as it claimed but owed more to not wanting to be out of step with public opinion: as popular anxiety mounted, and the number of confirmed cases topped 370,000 worldwide, Johnson changed tack.
Failure to prepare
Criticism mounted as it became clear how badly the British government was performing compared with countries such as South Korea, which became a role model for how to contain a pandemic using tests, tracking and isolation. Calls for an inquiry grew more insistent. The Observer declared: ‘As the warnings grew louder, Boris Johnson’s government was distracted by Brexit. On testing, contact tracing and equipment supply, there was a failure to prepare.’ Borders were closing as countries tried to stem the vast flows of people that had become the norm in a globalised world – by mid-March, 91% of the world’s population faced curbs on movement, according to the Pew Research Center. By early April, there were a million cases and 50,000 deaths globally. Johnson, who had boasted of flouting his own government’s rules by shaking hands a month earlier, was now in hospital himself. Saudi Arabia was considering whether to cancel the Hajj pilgrimage completely for the first time in a millennium, The Times reported.
Healthcare systems have struggled to cope in even rich nations. Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) suffered years of underfunding due to successive Conservative governments’ austerity policies, leaving hospitals with too few medical staff, intensive-care beds, ventilators and even personal protective clothing (PPE) to cope with a pandemic. Care of elderly people had been largely outsourced to the private sector and many care homes were already near collapse before the pandemic. ‘Nightingale’ field hospitals were swiftly built in conference centres to great acclaim and then mothballed as there were too few nurses to staff them. One hospital had to consider which patients would get oxygen as supplies dwindled. Half of UK doctors had to buy their own PPE or rely on donations. The idea that ‘we’re all in it together’ was proved to be just rhetoric as the Guardian found a disproportionate number of deaths among certain ethnic minorities. Inequality was itself a risk factor. The Office for National Statistics confirmed the role of ethnicity. The King’s Fund thinktank found deprived areas had twice as many Covid-19 deaths (55.1 deaths per 100,000 people to 25.3 for wealthier locales).
At the time of writing, the global total had reached 4,091,297 confirmed cases and 282,104 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The US accounts for nearly 1,327,720 of these (and 79,495 deaths). Of the 10 worst-hit Commonwealth nations, the UK is far ahead with more than 220,449 cases and 31,930 deaths, which is the second-highest figure globally. Canada is next on about 69,973 (4,991 deaths), followed by India on 67,161 (2,212) and Pakistan on 30,334 (659). The next Commonwealth country in the table, Singapore, is remarkable for having recorded 23,336 cases but only 20 deaths. Bangladesh is less fortunate, with 228 deaths but officially only 14,657 cases. South Africa has 10,015 cases and 194 deaths, Australia has 6,941 (97), Malaysia has 6,656 (108), Ghana 4,263 (22) and Nigeria has 4,151 (128).
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There are many Commonwealth countries with only a handful of cases and no deaths reported, including Fiji, Grenada and Namibia. But these numbers reflect unreliable data more than a state’s containment measures, healthcare or remoteness. That Nigeria, home to more than 200 million people and Africa’s most populous nation, has had half as many deaths as Finland seems implausible; that Lesotho, surrounded by South Africa, has not had a single confirmed case seems ludicrously so (in early April, it had 10 suspected cases, one of whom died). Several Commonwealth states or associated territories are in the happy position of being Covid-free, officially at least: Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Nauru and Niue.
The proviso with such ‘league tables’, however, is that it is fiendishly difficult to keep tab on deaths during a pandemic. At first the UK’s running total only included those of deaths in NHS care of people who had tested positive, which would overestimate Covid-19’s virulence. Vallance suggested in March that there could be 20 times more cases than there were officially. The number jumped by a quarter overnight when the government belatedly recognised how many old people in care homes were dying of, or with, coronavirus. As Italy had a mortality rate of 9.9% while Germany’s was 0.5%, Dr John Lee, a former pathology professor, argued the data was not comparable and the fact that Covid-19 was now a ‘notifiable disease’ in the UK meant official figures would show far more deaths caused by the virus than was the case. The Cambridge University statistician David Spiegelhalter said it would take years to disentangle the factors.
Cow urine and 5G
Fake news, disinformation and bizarre religious ideas have flourished in the haze generated by uncertain scientists, fumbling politicians and screaming headlines. In India, Hindu nationalists, and even MPs of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, praised the ‘miraculous’ powers of cow dung and drank cow urine. Indian mobs attacked Muslims for their supposed ‘corona jihad’. An Indian surgeon who should have been treated as a hero after he died of coronavirus, caught on duty, had to be secretly buried at night after his funeral was attacked. In Britain, there were attacks on Chinese people and Muslims were stigmatised and accused of flouting the lockdown. The longstanding canard of radiation from 5G mobile telecoms, like 3G before it, was given credence by a British TV presenter. American conspiracy theorists accused China of creating Covid-19 in a laboratory and vice versa. A Brazilian evangelical preacher, an ultra-orthodox rabbi and a Nigerian traditional ruler all extolled miracle cures or preventative powers. A billionaire American evangelical claimed God had directed him to keep his employees working when most US stores were closing. Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, looked to ‘prayer and snake oil’ to fight the pandemic, the Institute for Security Studies said, after he claimed Christian rituals killed coronavirus, then sent a plane to collect a herbal potion touted by the Madagascan president. Anti-vaxxers circulated a fake story that one of the first vaccine-trial volunteers had died.
What is clear is the scale of the economic slump sparked by the pandemic. The World Trade Organization said global trade would fall by 13% this year in an optimistic scenario, far more than in the 2008-09 recession. But the WTO chief, Roberto Azevêdo, warned that it could fall by a third, on a par with the Great Depression, if protectionist trade barriers went up as they had then. In another parallel with the 1930s, more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs in April, tripling the unemployment rate. The Bank of England warned of the worst slump since 1706, predicting the economy could contract by 25%. Most Commonwealth states do not have powerhouse economies like the US and the effects could be even worse. In Fiji, which relies on tourism for 40% of its gross domestic product, the shutdown of international aviation has devastated the economy, with the closure of 279 hotels and resorts leaving more than 25,000 Fijians without work.
Poorer nations, whose prime export is often their people, face plunging remittances as workers lose their jobs; money sent back home by the world’s one billion migrant workers has dropped by at least a fifth, the World Bank estimates. The fall for low- and middle-income states, from $554bn to $445bn, is the largest since the World Bank’s records began in 1980. These ‘hidden’ migrant populations in wealthier countries have never been so visible to the authorities – Singapore, lauded for efficiently quashing the outbreak, realised its migrant workers’ overcrowded, prison-like dormitories had incubated a resurgence of the virus.
The International Monetary Fund said living standards would fall this year as economic activity declined, partly as foreign investors pull money out and demand for commodities plummets – falls of 20% in copper and zinc prices, for example, will hit Zambia and Namibia hard. Some oil prices dropped below zero, meaning producers paid for it to be taken off their hands as demand evaporated and a glut in supplies pushed up storage costs. This could be catastrophic for Nigeria, a leading producer that is, as the Council on Foreign Relations put it, ‘oil dependent, not oil rich’.
Redeployment of healthcare resources to fight Covid-19 is exacerbating the damage: the WHO, for example, has had to delay polio vaccinations for 12 million children in Africa. With even the world’s richest countries struggling to scale up medical provision, the pandemic has exposed the paucity of less developed healthcare systems: Australia has one doctor to 280 people but Papua New Guinea’s ratio is roughly 18,000 to one. Aid is ever more needed as donors’ means become ever more limited. England felt under-equipped with 4,500 intensive-care beds before the pandemic – there are nine for every million people in Africa. ‘This pandemic has exposed the bankruptcy of social support systems in many countries,’ the United Nations’ poverty rapporteur, Philip Alston, said in an attack on the ‘hypocrisy’ of the British government suddenly abandoning austerity after years of public-sector cuts.
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‘Smouldering’ in Africa
Research into Sars-CoV-2 has been extensive, co-operative and fast-paced but much is still guesswork. In April, the UN Economic Commission for Africa said a worst-case scenario could see 3.3 million deaths and 1.2 billion infections in Africa. Weeks later, the WHO warned that Covid-19 could ‘smoulder’ in hotspots around Africa and infect 44 million people if containment failed. But it also pointed out that the worst-case scenarios for Ebola had not happened.
It became clear we had not learned the lessons of recent pandemics. But now we know what we need to do, and the importance of moving fast and decisively. As airlines near collapse and quarantine becomes a likely feature of air travel, the reappraisal of long-haul tourism that environmentalists have long called for seems likely to finally happen. The now-ubiquitous video calls might kill business travel. Social distancing and fear of contagion might transform old intimacies. There seems a shift in consciousness: new connections forming amid changing priorities, a value for expertise over populist leaders’ gut-feelings, and a newfound appreciation of undervalued health and social-care professionals.
However, a public health emergency has also become a human rights crisis, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, warned. Narendra Modi’s harsh lockdown in India, brutally enforced by police, forced millions of destitute people to walk for hundreds of miles to return to villages at no notice. Migrant workers were forcibly sprayed with bleach. South Africa deployed 72,000 troops to enforce lockdown. In Kenya, police beat and shot residents while enforcing curfews. Hundreds of migrants, including refugees, were detained in Malaysia.
But some Commonwealth countries have helped show that informed debate and effective leadership can turn the tide, as in New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern. The success in tackling Covid-19 of places such as Kerala shows that less hi-tech responses than South Korea’s also worked, with the Communist-run Indian state’s strong health service, clear communication and community participation flattening the bulge of infections. And, despite some divisive leaders such as Trump, coronavirus has helped the cause of intercommunal co-operation: in divided Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, president of the Greek south, sent vital medicines and other supplies to his counterpart in the breakaway Turkish north, despite the opposition of the Turkish Cypriot prime minister. There are even signs of new/old economic systems emerging as unemployed people use barter instead of cash, such as in Fiji.
Though our disregard for the natural world helped Sars-CoVid-19 cross from bats to humans, it has been heartening to see how quickly wildlife has reasserted itself, even in big cities. As people relish the strange quietness and sweet air that came as city centres and the skies became eerily empty of traffic, many are determined to make sure we do not return to ‘business as usual’ when the pandemic has passed. The Black Death probably helped end serfdom in much of Europe by killing more than a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. The mortality rate of our latter-day plague could be only 1-2% but coronavirus might, like the bubonic plague, prove to be a catalyst for profound upheaval.
Oren Gruenbaum is the editor of Commonwealth Update, which appears in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs