Fifteen months on, the COVID-19 pandemic is showing few signs of abating, and is even accelerating in parts of Europe, South America and Asia. In the first of a new series of regular briefings for Rethinking Security, Paul Rogers argues that massive increases in global inequality are as central to this human security crisis as the immediate health impacts.


These monthly briefings started in 2003 with the Oxford Research Group and continued until November 2020. They covered a broad range of international security areas not least the complex set of wars that followed 9/11, but also included issues of economic marginalisation and climate breakdown, helping to flesh out what we called the Sustainable Security approach and the many challenges posed to it by orthodox ‘security’ policies.

After a short pause the series is now being continued by Rethinking Security. Much has happened in the past four months, including the many political changes in the United States, but the COVID-19 pandemic remains the most serious of the immediate human security issues and is the focus for this briefing.


During 2020, I wrote seven times for ORG on the development of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those briefings that focused on the UK examined the extraordinary situation where a state that had been considered a world-leader in its national biological security strategy turned out to be a world-loser, and this will be the focus of a later briefing in this new series.

Six months ago I wrote on the risk of seeing the pandemic as a conventional security threat, a stance that the briefing argued would be hugely detrimental to a more effective human security approach. It did so in the context of the extent of the pandemic as it was at the end of September, summarising the situation thus:

As was forecast by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic is still a developing problem taking different forms across the world. While its direct health impact is still far from extreme, the particular features of the virus, especially its infectiousness and asymptomatic transmission, make it difficult to control without vaccines. Alternative measures available include sustained changes in personal behaviour on a large scale, quarantines, lockdowns and, above all, effective and rapid test and trace systems. A few states have used these in varying combinations with some success, but most have not. This failure has substantially increased the severity of the pandemic.

At that time, there had been 33 million cases of COVID-19 diagnosed and one million deaths worldwide, but WHO warned that with variable levels of testing and health provision these figures were probably substantial underestimates. Despite the death toll and the spread of the disease, COVID-19 is still one of the lesser pandemics of the last hundred years. Spanish Flu in 1918-20 infected an estimated 500 million (more than one-quarter of the global population) and killed at least 50 million. HIV-AIDS has killed at least 35 million people over nearly four decades.

Even so, the present pandemic is proving to be very difficult to control even if vaccines are at last becoming available. The number of confirmed cases now stands at 118 million and the number of deaths at 2.6 million. The death rate appeared to be declining in the five weeks from late January through February but is now rising again, not least in Brazil, Central/Eastern Europe and parts of Western Asia. While a few countries are at last seeing the impact of vaccinations, most parts of the world remain ill-served by this option.

The five worst affected countries by total deaths are:

CountryDeath toll from COVID-19
(08 March 2021, to nearest thousand)
United States529,000
United Kingdom125,000

In relation to population size, though, the worst of these is the United Kingdom, followed by the United States and then Mexico, Brazil and India. It is worth noting that the United States and the UK, the states rated by the World Economic Forum in 2019 as the two best countries for pandemic preparedness, have turned out to be the worst.

The core medical difficulties with COVID-19 are its asymptomatic spread and the requirement for widely available expert nursing care that is only found in well-resourced health services. There has certainly been a huge improvement in how to treat seriously ill patients and vaccination does appear to have a major impact on incidence, especially of serious cases. There are also major problems ahead even if the death toll is only about one in a hundred of those affected, mostly people over the age of 70.

Two issues have become clear as a result of the experience of the first fifteen months of the pandemic. These are the need for early action, especially over the question of new strains, and the early indications of socio-economic impact of COVID-19

Prevention and control

The first is that it is possible to stem the spread of the disease, but this requires a very responsive population, a political willingness to take radical action very quickly and the prioritisation of action above almost all usual governmental functions.

Having said that, the experience of several countries, especially in East and South-East Asia and Oceania, is highly relevant. As well as China, administrations in Taiwan and Hong Kong were taking action at the end of December 2019, before some Western leaders had even been briefed on the disease. Many other countries acted quickly, including New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. While Australia was initially slower, it then accelerated its actions rapidly with considerable success. In all cases, prevention and control were achieved without any recourse to vaccines, using a combination of sustained social distancing, temporary closure of potentially crowded venues, including schools and colleges, extensive use of quarantines and lesser forms of isolation and a rigorous control of incoming travel.

The short-term economic costs were often considerable, but one effect has been for those states to bounce back rapidly, even if still affected by world-wide declines in economic activity. China is anticipating six percent economic growth this year and several other East Asian countries are confident of progress, even if all will be affected by the serious overall downturn in the global economy in 2021 and 2022. Even so, such countries, with their early responses, remain the exception to world-wide trends.

New strains

In the early months of the pandemic, it was widely believed that COVID-19 would behave as other corona viruses in that it would be more stable and less prone to mutations than, for example, the influenza group of viruses. This was somewhat reassuring given that two other corona viruses had far worse death rates. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) occurred mainly in East Asia from 2002-03 and has a death rate of about 10% of those infected. MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), initially isolated in 2012, has a death rate of 35%. Fortunately, both are far less infectious than COVID-19. It is thought, for example, that if COVID-19 had combined the death rate of MERS with the infectivity of COVID-19 the death toll would already be around 100 million world-wide.

It follows that there is intense concern at the rise of COVID-19 mutations, especially as the virus is proving to be less stable than expected. New variants so far have included those known as the Kent, South Africa and Brazil variants. They appear to be more infectious if not more lethal but the primary current concern is with the Brazil variant which appears to be able to infect people who have already experienced the disease, raising concerns that it may have resistance to current vaccines.

Whether this is the case is far from certain at present but points to the need for extensive research and international cooperation. One approach to this is the ability to modify existing vaccines rapidly to cater for a new variant, as is the case with flu which requires yearly vaccination for the more vulnerable. In the case of COVID-19 this is increasingly focused on the possibility of developing ‘universal’ vaccine which would work against the whole corona group, including SARS, MERS and COVID-19. This would, though, be the best case outcome, whereas the risk of rapid spread in the coming months of a more lethal version of COVID-19 remains a concern among many virologists and epidemiologists if seemingly less so among politicians.

Global losers and winners

The second issue relates to the wider impact of the pandemic. Although it is too early to be completely sure, in just about every country that has been seriously affected by the pandemic, there have been similar indications that sectors of the population differ hugely in their experience of COVID-19. The evidence points repeatedly to the poorer and more marginalised being far worse affected than the wealthier. This often reflects the existing health experiences across societies, where life expectancy can frequently differ by at least five years and sometimes a decade within a country.

At the global level, the UN Department for Economic Affairs published a report late in 2020 on the likely impact of the pandemic on well-being and concluded that it was on course to reverse years of gains in reducing poverty, with 34 million people pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 alone. It detailed the nature of the impact:

While extreme poverty is driven by many factors, a couple stand out in the current crisis. Plummeting economic growth is increasing poverty and exacerbating existing inequalities. Factories are shuttered, domestic demand is curtailed, investments are postponed, and global trade has fallen sharply, thus jeopardizing innumerable jobs. At the household level, unemployment and loss of income, and high healthcare expenditures are the most prominent reasons for people to slip into poverty. As such, people living in countries with a large informal sector, with poor or inaccessible healthcare and a weak social protection system are particularly at risk. Indeed, the ILO estimated that relative poverty among informal workers increased in the first month of the crisis by 56 percentage points in lower-middle- and low-income countries, and by over 62 per cent in Africa. Nearly all sectors have been hammered, but tourism and manufacturing stand out due to their importance to provide employment for low-skilled people in developing countries.

UN/DESA Policy Brief #86: The long-term impact of COVID-19 on poverty,
(New York: UNDESA, 15 October 2020)

The 34 million figure is actually at the low end and is just for 2020, whereas the World Bank is suggesting a much higher longer-term impact. Meanwhile the World Food Programme has warned of impending famine and given a figure of the numbers of people without enough to eat already increasing by 130 million.

At the other end, a particular feature of the chaotic early months of the pandemic was the manner in which huge fluctuations in markets and emergency changes in government economic measures enabled the seriously wealthy elements of global society to increase their wealth exceptionally. The world’s largest private bank, the Zurich-based UBS, reported, for example, that in just three months (April-July 2020) the world’s 2,189 dollar billionaires increased their wealth by 27.5% to $10.2 trillion, with the wealth total itself having already seen a 70% increase over the previous three years.

Reaping the rewards

Some of the world’s major pharmaceutical companies stand to benefit enormously from sales of vaccines. There are some exceptions, including Astra-Zeneca teamed with Oxford University, which has agreed to provide doses at cost price, at least for the duration of the pandemic. How duration is defined is not clear and the company’s long-term prospects look very good.

Meanwhile, other companies are likely to reap considerable rewards, even in the billion-dollar range, prospects that show up in their share price changes over the past twelve months:

CompanyShare price change, March 2020 – March 2021
Johnson & Johnson+7.7%

The first three months of vaccine use has raised the issue of ’vaccine nationalism’ where states with wealth, well developed biotech industries and links with particular companies are able to capitalise on these advantages and leap ahead of the rest. Israel has already vaccinated well over half of its adult population and the United States hopes to have completed the vaccination of adults by the middle of the year. Meanwhile, scores of countries have not even been able to start, despite the WHO’s COVAX initiative, welcome though that is.

As of last December, rich nations accounting for 14% of the world’s population had bought up 53% of the most promising vaccines and last month high-income countries held 4.2 billion doses while low-middle income countries held 670 million, less than a sixth of that number.


The COVID-19 pandemic is a global phenomenon, and the impact of its further development remains uncertain. On the positive side, the success of some countries in controlling the spread, even before vaccines became available, was impressive but has required intense continuing surveillance to prevent new outbreaks. Even more welcome had been the rapid availability of vaccines within twelve months of the initial isolation of the virus.

Against that, there are three issues. One is the risk of the evolution and spread of dangerous new variants and a second has been the failure of some political leaders to act quickly, not least Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson. Much more important in the long term is the growing evidence that a deep impact of the pandemic, whatever its future path, will be to exacerbate socio-economic divisions world-wide, making it even more necessary for a change in economic thinking and action.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

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