Many rich states believe they are finally getting COVID-19 under control but with new viral variants, most of the world’s population far from being vaccinated, and local tensions building over impact on livelihoods and liberties, the political impact of the pandemic is far from played out.
This is the tenth in a series of analyses on the COVID-19 pandemic, the first seven published last year by the Oxford Research Group and the last three by Rethinking Security. Over the past 18 months they have concentrated on two elements: global trends, and the specific experience of the UK. A theme of the briefings is how the evolution of the pandemic relates to traditional thinking on security as this may dictate governmental and global responses. This briefing continues this trend, especially as the pandemic further increases its global impact, with optimism that it was coming under control diminishing in many parts of the world.
The year so far
This year, the first briefing in March, COVID-19 and the Structures of Human Insecurity, focused on two elements, the emergence in the previous six months of variants of the COVID-19 virus with properties enabling them to spread more vigorously than the original virus. These originated in the UK, South Africa and Brazil and have since been designated alpha, beta and gamma variants, with alpha quickly replacing the original strain in the UK and then spreading more widely across Europe.
The Briefing also looked at early indications of the global economic impact of the pandemic, with evidence emerging that these would be profound, especially for poorer and more marginalised people throughout the world. It also pointed to the remarkable gains being made by the richer sectors of society, especially ‘ultra-high net worth individuals’ with the world’s 2,189 dollar billionaires increasing their wealth by 27.5% to $10.2 trillion in the three months to July 2020 alone.
The second briefing, in May, Third Wave Nationalism: The Case Against COVID Complacency, pointed to a mood of complacency developing primarily in the Global North as mass vaccination appeared to be bringing the pandemic under control. This contrasted with evidence that the official figures for COVID infections and death were seriously underestimated, not least because of sparse data from many low-income countries.
In May an Economist analysis put the global death toll in a range from 7.1 million to 12.7 million with a central estimate of 10.2 million contrasting with an official figure at the time below 4 million. In India alone, the death toll may be six-times-higher than the official figure of 421,000. The World Health Organisation (WHO) acknowledged that the real global figure could well be close to twice the official global data but there was still an air of complacency in many countries that the worst was over.
That mood has largely evaporated, even though few countries, with the notable exception of the UK, are easing restrictions. More generally the concern arises from the evolution of new variants, the most dangerous being the delta variant originating in India. A further variant, lambda (from Peru, the country with the world’s worst death rate by population size) is being watched with concern as it spread rapidly across Peru and other Latin American countries in the first half of the year.
The main developments of the past two months are best summarised by looking at Western Europe including the UK, the broad global situation and the prospects for control given hugely varying rates of vaccination.
Across much of Western Europe the summer months initially saw a slowing of the pandemic followed by extensive easing of restrictions including opening of night clubs, restaurants, bars and many sporting venues. The extent of relaxation was far from complete, with some travel restrictions being maintained and authorities in several countries trying to increase the uptake of vaccinations, especially among the young.
The problem is that the overall easing has been accompanied by the rapid spread of the delta variant, the combination of easing and virus spread requiring radical action. Most notable has been the Netherlands where a rapid increase in infections and hospitalisation has required re-imposition of many restrictions, including nightclub closure.
The French concern has been principally with low vaccination uptake with a combination of encouragement and enforcement being implemented in response. Enforcement includes the introduction of health passes that can limit access to public spaces and restaurants and has encountered fierce resistance with police using teargas and water cannon to curtail one demonstration of 160,000 protestors. The policy and the public reaction are being closely watched in Italy which may follow suit. Opposition to the measures stems from fears of long-term state interference in civil liberties. It is frequently mixed in with a more potent and unyielding anti-vax sentiment.
At the time of writing there is a state of flux in much of Europe, and it may be another two months before a clearer picture emerges of overall developments in high income countries in the Global North including the US where similar problems of pandemic resurgence and public protest are emerging.
Then there is the Johnson government in the UK, which is determined to reopen the economy in England, come what may. Johnson’s very optimistic statements about “Freedom Day” on 19 July have already had to be nuanced because of a coincident surge in cases, but the assumption remains that there has been sufficient vaccination to ensure containment. It is a controversial position that has been strongly criticised by the WHO’s Head of Emergencies, Dr Jack Ryan, who described it as “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”.
The global picture
The pandemic continues to evolve across the world. As of 27 July, there had been close to 200 million confirmed cases and 4.1 million deaths, with both thought to be serious under-estimates. More accurate are the figures for vaccine doses delivered, which are of the order of 3.6 billion. Global vaccination requires about 15 billion doses, normally two doses per person and at least four times the current figure. Moreover, the great majority of those vaccinated are in the richer states of the Global North.
In the rest of the world some states have persisted with isolation, social distancing and quarantining with far less reliance on vaccination, but this ‘eradicationist’ approach is failing, not least in Australia where a sudden surge in infections has led to half the total population being put into lockdown, leading in turn to violent street protests against government policies.
Other East Asian states, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore continue to have problems containing outbreaks, contrasting with early success, and in some countries the incidence of the virus has spread alarmingly, the most worrying case being Indonesia (the world’s fourth most populous country) where the death rate is close to 1,500 a day, currently the worst in the world.
There has also been a surge in civil unrest as the pandemic increases its political impact. So far the effect has been to exacerbate existing tensions to the extent of acting as a tipping point where an anti-government mood was already present due variously to marginalisation, economic downturns, corruption and maladministration. Prior to mid-July the main example was South Africa where COVID-19 was an additional factor in an already fraught situation, but the strong anti-government protests that broke out more recently in Tunisia have been more closely linked to anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic. In Cuba, although local unrest has many causes, there is also anger at the spread of COVID in a country that prides itself on health care.
If there is concern about the persistence of COVID-19 in the Global North, then it is far greater across the Global South, especially those many countries at a very early stage of vaccination and lacking the resources and infrastructure to move faster. For epidemiologists there is the added worry that partial vaccination, if it proceeds slowly, provides a good environment for the virus to mutate into variants with vaccine resistance, especially if social controls and behavioural changes are not maintained alongside vaccination.
The specific concern with Britain is that the Johnson government’s approach means that the rate of delta spread ensures that there will be a large pool of viruses in a population that is barely half-vaccinated, mostly the over 30s, precisely at a time when most legal restraints are being abandoned. This is why there are conflicting opinions on the wisdom of the policy and why the “British experiment” – which appears to amount to a second attempt at pursuing ‘herd immunity’, at least among young people – is being watched so closely elsewhere.
More generally, it remains the case that the most important international requirement is for rapid global vaccination, but there is simply not the international political commitment to do this despite repeated calls from the WHO and the wider global health community. Costs would certainly be considerable and further obstacles are pharmaceutical corporations insisting on intellectual property (IP) restrictions that prevent localised vaccine production. Currently, the UK, alongside the EU, Japan, Brazil, Australia and other HQ states for major pharmaceutical companies, oppose proposals for a temporary waiver of IP rights during the pandemic.
This is all in the context of an earlier expectation that corona-type viruses tended to produce weaker rather than stronger variants with time; but with COVID-19 there have been five major variants in less than a year, and more are expected. This makes it even more urgent that global vaccination is accelerated. Even so, it will take at least 18 months to curb the intensity of the pandemic.
The international political system is very far from bringing the pandemic under control and there is little evidence of the political leadership to do so. That may change as the experience of countries such as Indonesia attracts more attention, but time is short.
The most significant development in recent months has been the growth in public unrest, often combining the immediate effects of COVID-19 with existing socioeconomic circumstances, themselves being exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic. If this trend does substantially increase, then international political priorities may change but there is little sign of that so far, and time may be short.
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.
Images: Protests related to government handling of COVID pandemic in Tunis (July 2021), Melbourne (July 2021) and Lima (Nov 2020).