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5 October 2020

The pandemic era: why Covid-19’s upheaval is here to stay

As the global death toll passes one million, we should beware of focussing only upon the numbers.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The largest stadiums in the world hold about 100,000 people. And by that I mean the very largest, those whose scale takes your breath away when you enter: Michigan Stadium, Wembley, Melbourne Cricket Ground, Camp Nou. Imagine one of them, full to capacity with people. Now imagine ten of them. That is a rough idea of how many people around the world are now recorded as having died of Covid-19. On Tuesday, 29 September, the database of fatalities maintained by John Hopkins University ticked over the one million mark.

It is worth trying to visualise this landmark to grasp the scale of the tragedy. Unlike many other disasters, the pandemic’s lethal force has asserted itself behind closed doors; in hospitals, nursing homes and, especially in poorer countries, in private homes. It is a cataclysm without a single focal point other than the all-too-abstract one of the steadily rising infection and death numbers. “If [Joe Biden] were here it wouldn’t be 200,000 people, it would be two million people,” Donald Trump said of America’s death toll in Tuesday’s presidential debate. Stick another zero on, in other words, why not?

Making the pandemic about raw numbers does not just facilitate callousness by those like Trump (or, in the country with the next highest death toll, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro) have who long dismissed the danger. It also recasts Covid-19 as some invisible – and again, almost abstract – natural force too ubiquitous, sprawling and polycentric for us to trace lines of agency and responsibility. A motorway pile-up, a terror attack, a war; in such cases impersonal numbers are attached to things you can capture on camera or in the mind’s eye. They invite us to identify perpetrators and victims. By contrast, the no-less-horrific human tragedy of the virus, diffuse and for the most part away from any spotlight, does so less easily.

But that does not mean that those lines of agency and responsibility do not exist. Covid-19 is believed to have zoonotic origins. Yet its spread, and thus its lethality, has been enabled by all sorts of human errors and abuses: the Chinese authorities’ failure to raise the alarm sooner, the failings of an international system at managing the risks of its own interconnectedness, the failure of political leaders to use the warnings to prepare quickly, and, moreover, the deeper socio-political failings (often specific to individual countries) that aided the virus’s advance.

That there were better and worse ways to shield people from it is plain to see in the uneven global distribution of the death toll, which bears little relation to climatic patterns, say, or degrees of interconnectedness. It is also plain in the open question as to whether a vaccine will be rushed first to those with the wealth and power to secure it or to those who most need it.

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The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimates that the global death toll by the Beginning of January will be between 1.6 million and 5.1 million, according to its projection scenario. The difference between those figures is made up of human choices.

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As the historian Adam Tooze put it on a recent episode of our World Review podcast: the pandemic has arguably been a (or the) example of “anthropocenic” crisis, or “part of the comprehensive blowback from nature onto our political, social and economic systems, generated in complicated ways by our own interactions with nature […] we are living within the feedback loop of our own activity.” 

There will be many more such crises. In a paper published on 15 August, the prominent US immunologist Anthony Fauci and his colleague David Morens argued that “we have entered a pandemic era”, with factors such as overcrowding, deforestation and global travel greatly raising the risk of further pandemics. Environmental crises too, will be no less cataclysmic and anthropocenic for emerging gradually in many places at once. We are still used to making a distinction between natural and man-made disasters, but we are beginning an age in which the line between the two will become increasingly blurred.