“Most of the world sort of sat by and watched with almost a sense of detachment and bemusement,” said Helen Clark, appointed to investigate the World Health Organization’s handling of the pandemic. The former New Zealand prime minister was describing the early weeks of the outbreak, and the sense that coronavirus was a problem “over there”. The failure to recognise our interconnection created complacency even as the death toll rose.
It took three months for the first million people to fall sick – but only a week to record the last million of the nearly 13 million cases now reported worldwide. As England emerges from lockdown at an unwary pace, Covid-19 is accelerating globally. The WHO has reported a record surge of a quarter of a million cases in a single day. The death toll is over half a million people and rising fast.
Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province, has reported its first case: a frightening portent, given the desperate circumstances in which people are already living. On Thursday, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said new cases were up 24% on the continent in the previous week, with cases surging in South Africa, Kenya and other countries. India, now the world’s third worst-affected country, reported a record rise of 27,000 cases on Saturday, to over 800,000 – almost certainly far below the true level.
Australia and Spain have reimposed local lockdowns, and Hong Kong has shut schools again. But the economic, social and political costs of such measures are all the higher second time around. In Serbia, plans for a strict curfew were downgraded after sparking anti-government protests. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has said it cannot afford to shut down again despite rising deaths.
So no one can afford to be complacent; the UK’s pandemic response should not be starting to “wind down”, as a No 10 insider reportedly said. Nor are endless lockdowns either desirable or sustainable. But we should not conclude that the worst is inescapable – rather, that effective measures, including the use of masks, distancing, and testing and tracing, are possible and make a vast difference to outcomes.
Vietnam has recorded no deaths and fewer than 400 cases, while the US has seen 3 million cases and more than 130,000 deaths, thanks not only to Donald Trump’s utter failure to prepare his country for coronavirus, but his reckless subsequent determination to push states into premature reopening. Infections are now surging in 41 states. On Friday, Florida recorded 11,433 new cases and saw its highest single day death rate, of 188.
In South America, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has repeatedly trivialised the pandemic and defied guidelines even since becoming infected himself. His country has 1.8m cases. Peru, Chile and Mexico are also badly hit. But Uruguay and Paraguay, which border Brazil, have had fewer than 50 deaths between them.
Though in some countries the apparently low impact of coronavirus will reflect low levels of testing, the US shows that prosperity is far from the only determinant of success. Nonetheless, the difficulties of fighting the pandemic in overcrowded places with malnourished populations lacking basic sanitation or basic healthcare are obvious. Poorer nations will need support to deal with both the pandemic and its broader impact. Hunger and poverty are surging and could kill more people than Covid-19.
Leadership can’t come from the US, as it withdraws from the WHO and attempts to corner supplies. Finding agreement even within the European Union is proving hard. But coronavirus has shown us that “over there” cannot be separated from “over here”. For everyone’s sake, we must recognise and honour our ties.