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16 September 2020updated 17 Sep 2020 12:38am

How the world is learning to live with Covid-19

Across continents, in every sort of society, the pandemic has exposed the weakest links. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

One of the more misleading terms in current global affairs is “second wave”. For one thing, the worldwide number of new Covid-19 cases has so far only risen. It has stabilised twice since March: first at around 80,000 daily new cases in the late spring and again at around 250,000 in the late summer. Moreover, these headline numbers hide an array of local patterns. In some countries, such as India and Indonesia, new case numbers have risen almost continuously; in others, including Brazil, Sweden and Russia, they have plateaued and then slightly eased. The US has followed the global trend of two rises and two plateaus; the UK and France seem to be following a genuinely two-wave pattern.

But the world has certainly reached a “second phase” of the pandemic. The spread of the virus might be uneven – and may remain so – but the world has now had more than half a year to get used to Covid-19. And as New Statesman contributors describe in the sketches from around the world, that shared reality has forged an array of common experiences in very different societies.

Much of the world is in the uncanny valley between the shock and disruption of the first months of the pandemic and the familiar habits of the before-times. A sort of normality has returned. The severe lockdowns of the early crisis have largely been lifted, offices and shops have reopened, and families and friends have been reunited. Yet time-travellers from the start of the year would still be staggered at what passes for everyday life today: faces behind masks; concerts and political rallies called off or heavily restricted; an unprecedented economic slowdown; classrooms and lecture-halls reopening as hushed, segregated versions of their former selves.

The fear and novelty of the virus have worn off, and many are bridling at the remaining restrictions – in some cases because they are sick of the confinement, solitude and infringement on individual liberty. But more people are demanding a return to normality out of existential economic need, because the burden of prolonged lockdowns has become more than many individuals and governments can shoulder. Furlough programmes cannot continue indefinitely. Government support for those unable to go to work in the Global South was patchy or non-existent from the start, and did little for the 60 per cent of the world’s working population (some 2 billion people) who work in the informal economy.

In countries where case numbers are rising again, or continuing to rise, governments are looking to more nuanced restrictions than the blanket lockdowns imposed in the spring: prioritising bans on big gatherings and protections for the vulnerable, and using intensive testing to maintain a higher level of economic activity this time around. This might be working; in at least some countries the infection mortality rate has fallen, and the daily global death rate has largely remained in the 3,000-6,000 range since the spring.

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Still, the pressure for a vaccine is intense and governments are rushing to capture the considerable political, social and economic benefits of rolling out one promptly. Vladimir Putin has already unveiled a questionably effective vaccine. There is speculation that Donald Trump might try to transform the US election campaign with an “October surprise” by promising an imminent vaccine and a subsequent return to normal.

But there is one common feature of this second phase that is more all-encompassing than the others. Around the world, in every sort of society, the pandemic has exposed the weakest links. Covid-19 has provided a tour of the things established cadres would rather not discuss. In Brazil it has told a tale of inequality and political dysfunction; in India it has demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the country’s millions of migrant workers; in Lebanon it has brought out the worst of the country’s endemic corruption.

The pandemic has illustrated the paranoid opacity of the Chinese government. It has laid bare the dependency of economies such as Nigeria’s on now painfully cheap commodities like oil. In the US it has exposed racial divides. In the UK it has told a parable of political bombast and state weakness.

Even among the world’s public-policy swots, weaknesses have emerged. Germany has kept infections down but local outbreaks in abattoirs have exposed the ugly underside of its cheap meat industry. Attentions in slick Singapore have been drawn to the grim conditions of its migrant labourers. Sweden’s laissez-faire response to the virus has highlighted the dangers of its tendency towards exceptionalism. It is no surprise that this has been a summer of unrest: people around the world, from Minneapolis to Brasilia, from Beirut to Minsk, have protested as societies have been tested and found wanting.

This pattern has played out not just within countries but between them. Covid-19 has drawn attention to the weakest links in the international system. The spotlight has fallen on refugee camps and war zones, climate disaster areas and failed states. More than that, the virus has exposed the deficiencies of a global order that lacks the powerful multilateral institutions needed to confront such worldwide crises. On 9 September the UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock reported “growing reason to believe that in the medium and longer-term, the weakest, most fragile and conflict-affected countries will be those worst affected by Covid-19”. Lowcock has also warned that the first famines of the coronavirus era could soon take hold in Yemen, South Sudan, north-east Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To the extent that Covid-19 has been a test-run for the catastrophic climate change events before us, we ought to be terrified.

The picture globally has been of the rich and fortunate shielding themselves in their walled gardens, double-locking the doors, before they concern themselves with those on the outside. The great fear of humanitarian experts is that this will apply to any vaccine, too: that rich governments, with their deals with pharmaceutical firms, will prioritise returning their own populations to normality before offering vaccines to the parts of the world that most need them.

And that is the biggest problem with the language of a “second wave”. Obsessing about the exact numbers of the pandemic, about the infections and deaths, does not begin to capture its effects. Every indicator suggests that much of the damage that Covid-19 does will be indirect: the economic slump, the priorities it has displaced, the behaviours it changes. New data published by the Social Progress Imperative, a non-profit organisation, shows that the pandemic could set back progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (which include the eradication of poverty, improving access to education, and action on climate change) by a full decade. This special issue of the New Statesman goes to press as the annual UN General Assembly gathers, virtually this year. If these truths do not serve as a grim warning for the global community, it is hard to imagine what will.

Explore the SPI’s findings here

Read the rest of the “Postcards from Planet Covid” series here

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid