All epidemics end sooner or later. Today’s coronavirus pestilence will also end, leaving behind many human tragedies, huge economic losses, forced changes in our customary way of life, shifts in geopolitics and worldviews that will in some manner affect each and every one of us. Although we still have a long way to go before the pandemic even peaks, it is never too early to ponder the outcomes we are ready to accept as relatively “benign” and those we would unequivocally deem “malignant.” What costs will be seen as inevitable losses and which will be viewed as the result of subjective mistakes and managerial miscalculations in combating the pandemic?
In other words, it would be useful to determine humanity’s provisional KPIs in combating the pandemic. Naturally, the concept of “acceptable losses” changes as the virus spreads and the pandemic grows in scale, and what seemed entirely unacceptable a month ago today appears to be a sad reality.
It is also obvious that these provisional KPIs will be different for different countries and regions, at least for the simple reason that the value of human life is not the same in all civilizations, societies, and political systems. Nevertheless, let us try to calculate the total cost of vanquishing the pandemic and of those practical lessons that global society must learn while combating COVID-19. What outcomes do we need to see in order for future historians to be able to conclude in all honesty that in 2020, humanity passed the coronavirus test with flying colours?
Duration certainly is one of the criteria of humanity’s success in combating the pandemic. The sooner we cope with COVID-19, the better. How far are we from turning the corner? Expert assessments vary wildly. Optimists believe that the global morbidity will peak in early summer or even in May, and subsequently, the number of new cases will gradually decline. Pessimists believe that the pandemic will last for two years at best, or will never end at worst, turning into a constant factor in our life, similar to the seasonal flu.
Just how long the active phase of the pandemic lasts largely depends on three factors: (1) the time it takes to develop, run clinical trials and mass-produce an effective vaccine; (2) how successful we are at preventing the mass spread of the disease in those regions that have thus far barely been affected by the pandemic (Africa, South Asia, Middle East, Latin America); and (3) the effectiveness of the lockdown and self-isolation measures in those countries where the pandemic appears to be approaching the turning point. And, naturally, it depends on our success in preventing repeat outbreaks in countries where the number of people infected with the virus is declining (East Asia, Iran).
We should not count on a miracle vaccine being developed in the next few months. Consequently, success on a global scale entails the following dynamics of the war on COVID-19: (1) approaching the global morbidity peak by mid-summer; (2) suppressing the main hot spots of the pandemic in the winter-spring of 2021 (after a vaccine has been developed); and (3) concluding the war on individual hot spots during 2021. Therefore, the war on the pandemic will end within the next 12–18 months, although some isolated action taken to suppress probable relapses will continue later as well.
This schedule of attacking the coronavirus proceeds from the premise that the pandemic will peak in Europe and the United States no later than early to mid-May, with morbidity levelling off in areas that are “catching up” (Turkey, Brazil, Russia, etc.) a month later on average, and that such densely populated countries as India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt will not demonstrate the exponential growth we have seen in Europe and North America. The ability of the countries in the global South to safeguard themselves against the explosive spread of the virus is an arbitrary assumption, but thus far, this assumption has been borne out by the weak dynamics of coronavirus cases in the South.
There is no consensus on this issue even in the expert community, and the estimates vary wildly again. Some cite the experience of China and other East Asian states, suggesting that the spread of the virus can be successfully contained through a strict lockdown in other regions, too, and the mortality rate can be kept at the level of China (5 per cent) or even of South Korea and Japan (approximately 2 per cent). Others doubt the possibility of transplanting “the East Asian model” into other regions or mistrust official Chinese statistics. Instead, their forecasts follow the figures of such countries as Spain (10 per cent), France (11 per cent), Italy and the United Kingdom (13 per cent).
Neither of these predictions has been definitively proved or disproved by the observed dynamics of the disease. Still, the current dynamics give more ground for alarm than for hope. What is alarming is not so much the number of people infected (over 2.35 million as of April 19), as the growing mortality rates (162,000.). The average global mortality rate (7 per cent) is significantly higher than the mortality rate in China, not to speak of the mortality rates in Japan and South Korea. If the pandemic spreads to the global South, with its undeveloped public healthcare systems and multiple armed conflicts, these rates are likely to increase as the number of infected grows, and so too is the burden on the medical infrastructure. For example, the mortality rate in Algeria is already over 15 per cent, although there is nothing to suggest that Algeria is or will be typical for the rest of Africa.
Given the “global average” indicators that are already emerging and basing our predictions on the geographical spread dynamic outlined above, we could call it a relative success if we manage to keep the total number of infected to below 10 million people with 5 per cent mortality rate (which is 2 per cent below the global average), that is, 500,000 deaths globally. In other words, humanity would do well on the whole if the total increase in the number of infected and dead only quadruples compared to the mid-April figures.
The expected dynamics appear horrifying, but we should remember that in late March, the number of infected in the United States quadrupled every ten days; in France, the number was quadrupling even faster in mid-March—every six days. So the predicted dynamics are, in fact, extremely optimistic. In absolute figures (10 million cases and up to 500,000 deaths), compared to the infamous “Spanish flu” of a hundred years ago (500 million infected and between 17 million and 100 million deaths), the predicted outcome for COVID-19 would be an undisputed achievement for humanity. And this certainly does not diminish the value of every life lost in Europe, America, Asia or Africa.
Naturally, the pandemic is not the only cause of the global recession. The current economic trouble stems from many factors, ranging from the natural conclusion of the extended growth cycle to the harsh oil price war unexpectedly breaking out between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the pandemic played an important part in exacerbating the dynamics of the emerging crisis. Apparently, the timeframe for vanquishing the coronavirus will also influence timeframe of the world hitting “rock bottom” of the current economic downturn and rebounding.
Coronavirus: A New Bug or Feature of World Politics?
There are no major arguments concerning the price that humanity will have to pay this year in its war on coronavirus. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that global GDP will shrink by approximately 3 per cent in 2020. The pandemic will also clearly have different economic costs for different countries and regions: the decline is predicted at 7–9 per cent of GDP for the Eurozone states, about 6 per cent for the United States, and 5.5–6.6 per cent of GDP for Russia, Brazil and Mexico. At year-end, India and China may demonstrate growth (1.9 per cent and 1.2 per cent, respectively), unless coronavirus has some unpleasant surprises in stock for these countries. Naturally, the current predictions reflect the immediate situation and generally correlate with the duration of the individual stages of the pandemic as outlined above.
The discussion principally focuses on how long it will take the global economy to rebound. Some economists believe that global economic growth may resume as early as late 2020 (the IMF optimistically predicts a growth of 5.8 per cent in 2021), while others predict a lengthy recession similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Still, others believe that we should not be talking about a „rebound” at all since what we will witness in the coming years is not going to be an economic recovery (i.e. a return to the starting point), but a profound transformation of the global economy towards a new technological paradigm. Obviously, countries that export raw materials and energy sources (including Russia) will encounter greater difficulties in such a scenario than the rest of the world, since they failed to make the best use of the “fat years” and will have to diversify their economies in highly unfavourable external circumstances.
In any case, the pandemic will prove especially destructive for individual economic sectors, particularly air travel, the hospitality industry, office real estate and shopping centres. A wave of bankruptcies will sweep the world, accompanied by a spike in unemployment and an exacerbated debt crisis. On the whole, we may conclude that humanity can count itself extremely lucky if by late 2021 global economic losses have totalled less than USD 5 trillion (approximately 8 per cent of today’s global GDP), the number of unemployed has topped out at 500–600 million people, and the global economy has managed to return to the pre-crisis level by 2022.
Of course, it would be a major economic victory for humankind if we were able to create the necessary international mechanisms, regimes and procedures to significantly reduce the volatility of world finances and global raw material, food and energy prices, deal with the debt problem, increase the role of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and reform it, and abandon trade wars and unilateral economic sanctions—that is, if humanity agrees on new rules of collective economic management for at least the next 20–30 years. However, not only are these tasks simply too big, but they do not match today’s dominant political trends. And this is a crucial problem.
The pandemic inevitably changes the balance of power in any country that has been seriously affected by the coronavirus. Where ruling centrist coalitions cannot control the situation, populists in the opposition win. Yet for populists already in power (the United States, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, etc.), the pandemic has become a major trial. It is easy to predict that in the next 12–18 months, we will witness various surprises in national elections throughout the world; we will see many features that are typical of life-changing eras, including traditional party coalitions being reformatted, new charismatic leaders emerging, etc.
As humanity emerges from the epidemiological crisis, it would probably be incorrect to view the global balance of power between liberal democracy and political authoritarianism as the principal criterion of its success or failure. A far more important indicator is the ability (or inability) of individual countries to demonstrate the safety margins of the political systems that they had in place when the crisis began. This does not in any way mean freezing the current political status quo, but merely implies preventing a collapse of governance, increased instability and slipping into political chaos.
For instance, right- or left-wing politicians coming to power in two or three states can be seen as an acceptable political cost of the pandemic in Europe, provided that Germany and France keep their centrist governments in place, since without the “Franco-German axis” the future of the European Union will be in jeopardy. Regardless of who wins the November elections, the key thing in the United States is to prevent the current socio-political polarization from exacerbating, since a split America is incapable not only of global leadership, but even of steering a responsible and consistent foreign political course.
If non-liberal political regimes, from Saudi Arabia and Iran to Venezuela and North Korea, avoid mass repressions while at the same time preventing their relevant political institutions from falling like dominoes, it will be an achievement in itself. Staunch opponents of authoritarianism may say that the coronavirus pandemic is an excellent time to change archaic political regimes and promote democratic values. However, changing political regimes during a pandemic is an enterprise that is entirely too risky and potentially too costly from the point of view of the collateral loss of life. Chaos during a pandemic can hardly be seen as a political victory. Additionally, secular political authoritarianism may be replaced with religious extremism that expounds eschatological interpretations of the advent of the coronavirus.
Way of Life
Coronavirus as a Symptom of Systemic Stagnation
There is no shortage of grim predictions that the pandemic will irreversibly change the way of life we have grown used to. Much is said about the inevitable and irreversible decline of geographical mobility, about professional and social activities rapidly migrating online, about the growing societal “atomization,” about customary hierarchies eroding, and about fundamental shifts in value systems. Concerns are being voiced that the coronavirus will promote “technological totalitarianism” throughout the world by giving governments advanced and highly sophisticated tools to control the population.
The possible costs of the pandemic for our customary way of life are hard to estimate for the simple reason that many of the fundamental changes are related not so much to the pandemic itself as they are to long-term fundamental processes that are taking place in the development of information and communication technologies and in the economy as a whole. The coronavirus did not produce the Big Data concept, nor is it responsible for the unprecedented transparency of our social and private lives. It did not privilege multiple weak social connections (“friends” on social networks) over a few stable offline ties (real-life friends). The pandemic simply accelerated many of those shifts in our way of life that had been happening under our mind’s radar.
So, a victory over the coronavirus would not mean returning to the Ancien Régime of the late 20th century. Rather, it would mean establishing an acceptable balance between new information and communication realities and the eternal human desire to have individual freedom and protect one’s privacy. Apparently, this balance must be specific to every individual society and culture while also including certain universal norms that are acceptable for all of humanity. The pandemic has shed a harsh light on a problem that could have otherwise remained overshadowed by other, more obvious civilizational problems. If this problem recedes to the periphery of the public mind again once the war on COVID-19 is over, the victory over the virus will be incomplete. And we will have failed completely if, once the pandemic is over, the emergency control measures implemented by states remain for an indefinite period under a dubious pretext (that the epidemiological has not subsided, for example).
Preventing a new European or even global migration crisis would signify a major success in preserving our customary way of life. The pandemic and the economic recession make a repeat of the events of 2015–2016 quite probable. Apparently, the oil monarchies of the Gulf and the West will reduce their financial support for such states like Egypt and Sudan; regional conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa will continue and spur new waves of migration flows towards Europe. On the other hand, growing unemployment in Europe, coupled with the accelerated development of manufacturing automation, will increasingly reduce demand for a new workforce, with the exception of a few in-demand jobs. Therefore, a second migration crisis following hard on the heels of the epidemiological crisis would be even more destructive for the European way of life than the first migration crisis.
Alarmists keep saying that the pandemic is a death sentence for globalization as we understand it today. Empty airports and hotels, cancelled exhibitions and forums, deserted city streets, no sporting events (including the Olympics)—all the erstwhile symbols of the unity of humankind are now in a critical condition after being hit by the coronavirus, fading and shrinking before our very eyes. Even more serious symptoms are the rise of protectionism and nationalism, the paralysis of the UN Security Council and its failure to take action against the pandemic, the United States cutting funding for the World Health Organization, the G7 and G20 summits issuing vague and helpless statements, the WTO being in a state of permanent crisis, and the World Bank and other global institutions being slow to act. Doomsayers predict the collapse of global technological chains, the reduction of world trade, the tightening of border controls and other signs of the crumbling (or, to borrow a word from the Valdai Club’s vocabulary, “shattering”) world.
A few qualifications are in order here. First, many of the alarm bells above started sounding long before COVID-19. Talk about the crisis of globalization has been around for at least ten years, if not longer. Second, the very fact of the virus spreading around the world like wildfire clearly confirms that, despite anti-globalist prophecies, globalization continued at a brisk pace in the 2010s. Third, the ties that have been temporarily cut due to the virus can be restored fast if the economic prerequisites are in place. For instance, after 9/11, air travel in the United States fell by 20 per cent, but recovered just a year later.
This is not the key thing, however; the key point is that globalization can develop in various forms and even in different dimensions. Symbols of the unity of humankind can change. For instance, the rapid expansion of the number of people being able to work from home, internet commerce, and online communications creates radically new opportunities for developing cross-border and global technological chains. For the first time ever, truly global markets are emerging, including the labour market. A small village in the middle of nowhere can, under certain circumstances, prove to be just as efficient at driving globalization as a huge megalopolis. As for our way of life-changing, COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for those inevitable shifts in globalization mechanisms that had long been brewing but had remained overshadowed by other trends and phenomena.
As for institutionalizing globalization processes, a transition to a new level of manageability of the international system would constitute a true triumph for humanity in its war on coronavirus. But we can hardly count on this happening. Therefore, it would be a success of sorts to prevent the further escalation of trade wars after the pandemic, as ending them completely is an unrealistic prospect. In the same vein, preventing the further deterioration of international organizations, rather than elevating their status, would also be a success. It would seem that humanity’s triumph over the virus would also manifest in bolstering regional organizations such as the European Union, ASEAN and its natural extension, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Agreement between the United States of America, the United Mexican States, and Canada (USMCA) and the EAEU.
Risks of a Relapse
After Coronavirus: “Nuda Vita” and the “Extraordinary Power” of the Modern State
We still know little about the nature of COVID-19 and how it spreads. Therefore, we do not understand the degree to which such pandemics will accompany humanity from now on. As in other matters, there are optimists who believe that such large-scale pandemics happen once in a hundred years, and pessimists who insist that such pandemics will become seasonal, like the flu. However, despite all the uncertainty, one obvious conclusion that we can make from the current situation is that the healthcare systems in most countries are inadequate to the challenge. It is important that we are talking systemic problems here, not merely insufficient funding: the United States spends over USD 3 trillion a year on healthcare, yet currently leads in the number of COVID-19 cases (over 700,000 as of April 19) and the number of deaths (40,000).
Going back to “business as usual” after the pandemic would be a clear failure. Improving the efficiency of national healthcare systems is technically complicated, politically sensitive, and generally extremely costly. It is no accident that former President of the United States Barack Obama considered his healthcare system reform (“Obamacare”) the main achievement of his eight years in office, while his successor Donald Trump vowed to fight this reform. However, regardless of the differences in national healthcare systems, COVID-19 leads us to two obvious general conclusions. First, a healthcare system must be excessive; that is, its capacities should significantly exceed the population’s current needs. It makes the system more expensive, but the coronavirus has shown that when serious problems arise, cost-cutting ends up being far more expensive.
Second, the system cannot be mostly based on market principles. The market is not always interested in making medical services more accessible or in new medications being developed faster and sold cheaper. Since the early 1990s, the cost of medications in the West has virtually doubled every decade!
Given all the uncertainty, as humanity emerges from the pandemic, a significant increase in the WHO’s potential and powers could be viewed as a success. Let us remember that even though the WHO played an important role in eradicating smallpox and combating polio and malaria, it was not initially established as an instrument for fighting global pandemics. A careful analysis of the COVID-19 experience is in order to subsequently fine-tune the mechanisms of immediate global monitoring for and responding to new infectious diseases. We also need to create an effective system of cross-border cooperation to develop, testing and manufacture vaccines for viruses. We would very much like to hope that creating a COVID-19 vaccine will be an example of a true multilateral project similar to building the international space station instead of transforming into a global “pharmaceutical” race like the “space race” contested by the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.
Winner Takes All
Many people are likely to see our criteria for success in combating the coronavirus as not ambitious enough. Yet the main thing today is to give a realistic assessment of the scale of the challenge we face and not entertain any dangerous illusions concerning humanity’s ability to cope with COVID-19 in quick fashion and with minimal losses. It would be a mistake to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is “solely” an epidemiological, economic, or managerial challenge. It is also the first truly civilizational challenge of the 21st century, and the response can be neither easy nor quick, because when we face a civilizational challenge, the response must come from society as a whole, and not only from international organizations, great national powers, research labs and the headquarters of transnational corporations.
Let us recall the infamous plague epidemic (the “Black Death”) that devastated Europe in 1346–1353, claiming, as people regularly point out, the lives of an estimated 30–60 per cent of the population. The Black Death, however, also served as a powerful catalyst for social, economic, technological, cultural and spiritual shifts that had been brewing in Europe. The plague influenced all aspects of life, from gender roles to religious practices, from agricultural technologies to the social structure of medieval societies. Causal links can be established between the pandemic and the European Reformation and the Age of Discovery. In the east of Europe, the Black Death, among other things, dealt a crushing blow to the Golden Horde, thereby opening a window of opportunity for the rising Principality of Moscow.
Naturally, COVID-19 cannot be compared to the Black Death. However, the potential long-term consequences of what we are experiencing today may prove to be no less significant. Although the civilizational challenge posed by coronavirus affects the whole of humankind, it also affects each individual country. After the pandemic, multiple shifts in global and regional balances will transpire at a much quicker pace than before. It will also be clearer far sooner who the winners and losers are. Their victories and defeats will be more apparent, and their hopes for a “rematch” will be largely unfounded. The crisis will quickly put everything in its place in the world that is now emerging. To quote perhaps the most outstanding financial mind of our time, Warren Buffet, „Only when the tide goes out, do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
Andrey Kortunov, Ph.D.