Over a hundred days have passed since the first reported case of COVID-19 in China which eventually led to WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Considering the initial spread of the virus in China and enormous mobilization by the Chinese government in response, many may have been too naïve to not anticipate a pandemic.
Today, the earliest estimate for a vaccine is still over six months away which many experts argue is optimistic at best. Such an estimate is politically motivated, given it takes over 15 months for the development, testing and distribution of clinically safe and regulated vaccines. Looking at the blazing pace of spread, responses by governments or lack thereof and all scientific data about the virus, will a vaccine really put an end to this crisis? Who will be held accountable for the short-term and long-term impacts of the virus on global politics, free trade, manufacturing outsourcing and the whole global financial system?
A pandemic is never a surprise, especially in today’s connected world where information literally travels at the speed of light and governments struggle to suppress incidents for longer than a week. The same goes for the global market and most economies where experts are able to predict impacts of such natural disasters when given access to enough data. Several United State Senators got into hot waters over dumping stocks and reinvesting in key industries once given access to confidential reports about COVID-19 in February. This goes to say it is possible for countries and their economies to prepare and mitigate any negative impact such a disaster would have. Slow and ineffective response in the face of the pandemic is why most Western nations are the worst hit and their economies shut down. This also explains why East Asian economies like South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam are doing much better than almost all Western economics despite their proximity to the epicenter of the pandemic.
After ravaging through China, COVID-19 has now infected over 2.75 million people from over 210 countries and territories, and caused over two trillion-dollar loss to the global economy in just over three months as estimated by the United Nations. Billions of people remain under lockdown with no sign of relief. The Stock Markets dropped by over 15% within a week after WHO classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. Today, experts say a global recession is considered inevitable, unimaginable just four months prior. While China and other South East Asian countries prepare to lift lockdowns, their economies are in much better position for a speedy recovery than most Western countries which are at their worst week of the outbreak.
The timely development and effective distribution of a vaccine is likely the best case for a speedy recovery for the global economy. Ideally, it will be ‘U’ shaped recovery, in which the curve of further spread is flattened throughout most of the economies, and lockdowns start getting lifted gradually. In such a scenario, most of the economies would recover at the same rate as their collapse to their pre-crisis state by 2021. However, some experts are critical that it could be a ‘W’ shaped recovery caused by second wave of outbreak in Fall 2020. This second wave is predicted by many to be much deadlier and could last until the early 2021 in case no breakthrough is achieved in the development of a vaccine.
As the fear of the virus locks down a fourth of the global population, businesses and industries have started layoffs cut losses. The worst victims of the pandemic, the tourism and manufacturing industries have started to send home a significant portion of their workforce already while cutting pay for those who remain employed. In the United States, over 10 million people filed for unemployment in just the month of March. While some companies have promised a re-hiring scheme for the laid off employees, it is estimated that by the end of the pandemic unemployment could reach up to 100 million globally. In the post-pandemic world, this problem could take years to get resolved. In the meantime, it might become difficult for the government to take care of this group of people, and in developing countries, it could even lead to anarchy, which could make the situations worse and result in further collapse of the countries’ economies.
While some cities are deserted, there are protests and chaos in others. It won’t be incorrect to say that perhaps Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, faced the strongest lockdown of any city in the world. China reported that the city went into lockdown a few days after the first case was reported and investigated and remained under lockdown for over three months. While in the West, countries have been unable and unwilling to take China’s approach and either requested their citizens to practice ‘social distancing’ or tried herd immunity by letting a large portion of their population get exposed to the virus on purpose.
This lack of coordination between countries and within a country have created social confusion among the general public where some cities like Seattle remained under self-imposed lockdown while people are protesting against the lockdowns in Detroit. Despite the approach by the state and government, social life would not be the same after the lockdown where some people will continue to practice social distancing which might annoy others. The best example perhaps are community-based institutions like, churches, mosques, concerts and sport events which have been the first institutions to be locked down by the authorities. It would not be wrong to state that the way we interacted, communicated, and worshipped before the pandemic would not be the same once this crisis is over.
As the pandemic rages on, mass digitalization is happening in almost all industries and institutions. Thanks to the pandemic, schools and colleges are investing in online solutions would might stick around once the crisis is over and online degrees might not be what they used to be and more people might opt to study online, especially those studying part time. A lot of people might choose to work from home if permitted by their employers and we might see a shift in what an ‘office job’ is ought to be and if people really need to spend as much time in tiny cubicles when the same work can be done from home.
A lot of people would be cautious of large gatherings long after the outbreak is over as this would be the first such an experience for many. Especially in the West, who either remained better protected due to sound action by their governments or were not affected at all, by the past epidemics and pandemics like SARS and MERS. Looking at SARS as the most recent pandemic, it absolutely changed peoples’ attitude towards social interaction and personal protection in most South East Asian countries. Wearing a face mask for example, became widespread and for some the norm while in most Western nations it is a rare sight, even during the COVID-19 outbreak.
All in all, this experience is going to change the definition of social interaction for a lot of people in the worst hit countries who will learn to stay more cautious and better prepared for the next outbreak. Looking at the situation in some countries, especially the USA, a lot of people would push to return to the life they had before the pandemic but not everyone would be onboard to shake it off and go on the life before the pandemic.
Although, the pandemic has been a very unfortunate experience for many, it did serve as a visual for a global action against Climate Change. As planes remain grounded, factories shut and millions of cars off the road, the changes in the environment can’t be ignored. There have been reports of dramatic reduction in pollution, cleaner air and return of displaced animals to their natural habitats all over the globe. In the worst hit countries like Italy, the reduction in emissions by cars alone is down by 40%. This means that the air quality has significantly improved these days. While many would celebrate this temporary recovery, it could be dangerous to assume the Earth could be saved in matter of days when things get too ‘dirty’. Instead, this should serve only as a proof of the extent of impact humans have had on the environment for centuries and it would indeed take centuries to recover. Climate Change caused by fossil fuel over decades could only be reversed by global action against Climate Change which would takes decades to show reliable results.
As the lock down puts millions out of a jobs and funds are scares, this is also bad for the environment as many organizations working against pollution and Climate Change risk being defunded by their respective governments and donors. Many governments, industries and institutions who oppose environmental regulations or do not believe in Climate Change might move to defund or disband research teams monitoring the Climate would be one of the most unfortunate outcomes of this pandemic. At the same time, many government might see the impact of the lockdowns as a sign for the need of better environmental regulations to protect their cities and towns from pollution and that not all industries running of fossil fuel are as essential as they might have seemed before the pandemic.
We cannot be certain about the aftermath of this pandemic but essentially, it depends on the world’s capacity of shielding and initial preparedness against its consequences. Having a look at our fight against the Australian fires and now COVID-19, it is clear that we only thrived to protect ourselves against each other, and no one ever thought nature could wage a war. The future, however, can could be different for the human race. Much better, in fact, if we reconsidered our priorities as a whole.