A year of pandemic has changed the trajectory of our world
Kerry Boyd Anderson
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis an official pandemic. One year later, the pandemic has changed our world in innumerable ways. Some of those changes are reversible; others are not.
Most importantly, COVID-19 has killed more than 2.5 million people. In the US alone, more than 500,000 have died from the virus. The loss of these lives is irreversible and the greatest cost of the pandemic. Many more have been infected, some with long-term negative health effects.
The pandemic has hit the world in unequal ways. In terms of known deaths per 100,000 people, European countries, the US and then Central and South American countries have suffered the most. However, the pandemic is global, affecting nearly every country.
Historically, pandemics have hammered at pre-existing cracks in societies, and COVID-19 is doing the same. Where societies had divisions, the pandemic widened them. Where trust in institutions was declining, the pandemic deepened distrust. Where socioeconomic structures were being challenged, the pandemic intensified the stress. Where gender and racial inequalities existed, the pandemic reinforced them.
The pandemic has shaped politics in many countries in various ways, reflecting each country’s own circumstances. A 2020 poll of 14 wealthy countries found that a majority of people believed that their governments had responded well to the pandemic; only in the US and the UK did a majority say their country had handled the pandemic poorly. Countries with deep divisions prior to the pandemic — such as Brazil, India, the UK and the US — faced additional challenges, as divisions complicated good governance and the type of clear messaging that is critical to combating a public health crisis.
Multiple leaders contracted the virus, including US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Most recovered, partly thanks to their access to high-quality medical care. However, Eswatini Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini died in December.
Similar to previous pandemics, COVID-19 has accelerated a pre-existing trend of distrust in institutions — in governments, scientists, religious leaders and even families. Similar to past pandemics, there has been a rise in extremism, driven by factors such as distrust in institutions, loneliness, personal economic loss and a desire to blame others. This trend has been particularly notable in the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory in the US, but is manifest in other ways around the world.
The pandemic has also had significant effects on global politics, often exacerbating challenges that predate COVID-19. It has highlighted the need for cooperation to combat a threat that crosses borders, but it has also demonstrated the weakening of multilateral institutions. Institutions such as the G7 and G20 struggled to find consensus. Initially, EU countries mostly chose to adopt their own measures, including border closures. Trump withdrew the US from the WHO.
At a time when multilateral cooperation to combat the virus was essential, many countries turned to nationalistic approaches. Some of this was understandable and even advisable, such as some border closures. It is natural that many countries are examining supply chain vulnerabilities and seeking to reduce reliance on the globalized economy for key resources. However, where such responses block needed cooperation, it undermines pandemic response. In the long term, such measures might further erode the global political and economic systems.
The two powers with the greatest global reach — the US and China — both suffered reputational damage. The virus emerged in China, which failed to contain it and has not been fully transparent with the WHO and other governments. The US failed to manage its own outbreak, resulting in death rates far out of proportion with its share of the world population, despite having one of the world’s most expensive healthcare systems. However, the US has been the world leader in developing highly effective vaccines in record time, while China has used its own vaccine as a form of diplomacy designed to restore its reputation.
COVID-19 has also had massive economic costs around the world, reflecting both the direct economic impacts of the virus and the indirect impacts caused by mitigation measures such as lockdowns and social distancing. In January, the International Monetary Fund estimated that the global economy contracted by 3.5 percent in 2020. Many countries have seen gross domestic product declines, increases in unemployment, and increased pressure on businesses. Governments have pumped huge amounts of money into stimulus plans that will have long-term fiscal consequences.
Some sectors have struggled more than others. The pandemic-driven slowdown in global economic activity was a major driver of a historic oil price drop in spring 2020. The crisis also exacerbated economic inequalities in many countries, particularly hitting people who work in sectors like retail and hospitality or who work in informal sectors.
As many people shifted to shopping, schooling and working online, it became very clear that high-speed, reliable internet is a part of critical infrastructure. Trends such as online retail, telemedicine and telework are likely to remain strong even after the pandemic is over.
Meanwhile, the social impacts of the pandemic have been severe and widespread. People are social beings and social distancing exacts costs on mental health and overall well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic is also a loneliness pandemic. Many people with COVID-19 have died alone, away from the physical embrace of loved ones. Adults, teenagers and children have all suffered from loneliness and disconnection from their communities, friends and families.
School closures will have one of the longest-lasting social and economic impacts. Early in the pandemic, 78 percent of countries closed schools, according to the UN. By August, more than 1 billion students were still out of school. While many children have accessed school online, it is widely seen as subpar compared to in-person schooling. The loss of education and related social development is staggering.
The lack of in-person schooling also created a child-care crisis for many families, making it difficult for parents, especially mothers, to work. The pandemic has had very negative effects on women, who have faced increases in domestic violence, reduced access to maternal healthcare and family planning, and extensive job losses in the sectors that tend to more heavily employ women. Even before the pandemic, the UN estimated that women did three times the amount of unpaid care and domestic work as men, and school closures massively increased that burden for mothers, who were more likely than fathers to stay home with children and assist with schooling. Women also play a key role in the healthcare sector as well as caring for sick or elderly relatives, and the pandemic imposed huge burdens on healthcare workers and caregivers.
There will be many other long-term social impacts. Evidence so far suggests that the pandemic will accelerate a decline in birth rates in wealthier countries, while potentially accelerating population growth in some poorer countries. The pandemic will likely change how cities approach infrastructure, transportation, housing and public spaces. COVID-19 also complicated responses to natural disasters, from hurricanes and fires in the US to cyclones in South Asia.
It has been a difficult year for the entire world. Fortunately, the historically fast development of multiple vaccines offers hope. While vaccines are more widely available in wealthier countries, and it will take time to vaccinate those populations and then far beyond, there are signs of progress, including through the Covax facility, in the provision of vaccines to other countries. It remains unclear what the end of the pandemic will look like and whether we will have to live with COVID-19 in some form indefinitely. However, it is possible to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The pandemic will likely change how cities approach infrastructure, transportation, housing and public spaces.
Previous pandemics often changed the course of history. They have affected the outcomes of wars and shaped empires. Some led to vast socioeconomic change, such as the Black Death significantly contributing to the end of feudalism in Europe. Pandemics often spark bursts of artistic and intellectual creativity. They have contributed to medical knowledge and healthcare reforms.
It is not yet clear exactly how COVID-19 will reshape the world, but it is clear that we will not return to “normal” as we experienced it over a year ago. When our world emerges from this pandemic, it will be on a changed trajectory. While the future will reflect trends that predate the pandemic, COVID-19 has shaped our future.
The writer is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk.