COVID-19 Global scene

Global chaos as COVID-19 rages across continents

Print edition : July 31, 2020

A massive public demonstration against the Serbian government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Belgrade on July 9. Photo: Oliver BUNIC/AFP

A cemetery for COVID-19 victims in Taiz, Yemen, on June 23. There are reports that Yemenis, already caught in a Saudi-imposed war, are “dying like flies” as a result of the novel coronavirus. Photo: Anees Mahyoub/REUTERS

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who recently tested positive for COVID-19. Photo: Eraldo Peres/AP

The pandemic rages unabated across continents, from war-torn Yemen to the Balkans to Brazil and Peru to South Africa. Even as autocratic regimes see in it an opportunity to curtail freedoms, the economic burden imposed by lockdowns have led to popular protests in many countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of ebbing. In fact, it has resurfaced in countries such as China, Australia, South Korea and even New Zealand, which had seemingly brought the spread of the coronavirus under control within their borders. Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, was sealed for six weeks in the second week of July. However, these countries have been quick to take strict remedial actions, as the numbers of those infected are comparatively few in relation to regional epicentres of the pandemic such as Brazil, the United States and India. South Africa, too, is emerging as a new regional epicentre of the pandemic.

The coronavirus has further complicated the dire situation in war-torn Yemen, which has been facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis for the last couple of years. The international community has virtually forgotten Yemen, even as Saudi war planes bomb its cities and vital installations. There are reports that Yemenis are now “dying like flies” as a result of the novel coronavirus. Many hospitals were bombed and medicines are in short supply as a result of the Saudi-imposed war and economic blockade. The United Nations has warned that the death toll due to the virus could exceed the combined death toll so far as a result of war, disease and hunger. In the last five years since the war started, more than 1,00,000 Yemenis have died.

Countries such as Cuba, Vietnam and China, which are run by Communist governments, have been able to cope with the pandemic much better than the rest of the world.

Spike in the Balkans

In the rest of the world, chaos prevails. The government of Serbia, which had ended its lockdown at the end of May and conducted parliamentary elections in the third week of June, has had to beat a hasty retreat as the virus resurfaced with a vengeance. Serbia was among the earliest European countries to lift lockdown restrictions and has now become the first country in the region witnessing popular resentment against its government’s policies. After the lifting of restrictions, the centre-right government allowed massive election rallies. Masks and social distancing were not mandatory. It also allowed football matches to resume in stadiums packed with people. The tennis champion and Belgrade native, Novak Djokovic, organised tournaments, and has since apologised after he and his close associates tested positive for the virus.

President Aleksandr Vucic, whose party registered a landslide victory in the June parliamentary elections, ordered the re-imposition of the national lockdown on July 7. The infection rate had spiked in the first week of July, with the country of seven million registering more than 250 cases every day. The President’s move angered the residents of Belgrade and other cities. Thousands of angry demonstrators tried to storm the parliament building in Belgrade’s central square on the night of July 7.

The protestors and the opposition blamed the government for the spread of the virus but also demanded that a national lockdown, which had caused an acute economic slowdown, not be re-imposed. Opposition parties have blamed the President for using the lockdown to further strengthen his autocratic rule. Vucic backed down the next day in the face of continuing violent protests and announced that the new lockdown proposals had been withdrawn. The opposition, having smelled blood, has now called upon the government to resign. The mass protests on the other hand could trigger another COVID-19 spike in the Balkans.

Outbreak in Brazil

Meanwhile, Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the first week of July. He had been tested thrice before in the last couple of months but the results had been negative. Now his days of playing Russian roulette with the disease are over. Bolsonaro, who had once described the virus as nothing more dangerous than “a little flu”, did not wear a mask in public or practice social distancing, and was a supporter of the concept of “herd immunity”.

Bolsonaro had said recently that the pandemic was like “seasonal rain” in which everyone would get wet. He told reporters that his was only a mild case of the virus and that his favourite drug, hydroxychloroquine, was enough to treat his fever. The effectiveness of the drug in treating COVID-19 symptoms has been debunked by the World Health Organisation and most scientific studies. Bolsonaro announced to the public the day after he took ill that the coronavirus symptoms had become minimal because of his regular use of the drug. It takes more than a week for the symptoms of the disease to fully manifest themselves. Bolsonaro still could find himself in the same position as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had earlier been—in an emergency ward with a ventilator by his side.

The illness did not, however, prevent Bolsonaro from vetoing a law that would have provided drinking water, disinfectants and a guarantee of hospital beds for the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest, who are among the worst affected. The indigenous people, numbering around a million, live in remote areas that have no access to hospitals and medicines. Incidentally, while running for President, Bolsonaro had vowed to hand over large tracts of the Amazon to commercial interests, cattle ranchers and farmers.

Bolsonaro had been against imposing a lockdown when the virus started claiming thousands of lives in Brazil in March. He refused to change his mind despite his Health Ministers advising strict measures. Two Health Ministers were sacked in quick succession by the President even as the pandemic ran riot in Brazil. The governors of the states in the Federation, from both the ruling party and the opposition, decided to impose the lockdown despite the President’s opposition. The Brazilian government has not ensured either mass testing or contact tracing. Even after testing positive for the virus, Bolsonaro repeated his earlier message on national television: “Life goes on. Brazil has to produce, we have to activate the economy.”

Judge Renato Coelho Borelli of the Supreme Court of Brazil had recently warned Bolsonaro that he would be subject to a $400 fine if he did not wear a mask in public. Wearing a mask in public is mandatory in Brasilia, the country’s capital. The judge delivered his order after hearing a plea filed by a lawyer to draw attention to the President’s disastrous handling of the pandemic crisis and the resulting institutional paralysis. Bolsonaro has lately started wearing a protective mask, because of the order from the Supreme Court, during his frequent interactions with his supporters. But a few days before he started showing COVID-19-like symptoms in early July, he was photographed having lunch with the U.S. Ambassador during the Fourth of July celebrations, with neither of them wearing masks.

With more than 1.6 million cases and more than 65,000 deaths by early July, Brazil is the second worst COVID-19 affected country after the U.S. Many experts believe that the death count has been massively underreported. In the last six months, around 25,000 deaths in Brazil were attributed to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Last year, the deaths due to ARDS in the same period were around 1,800. By early June, the Bolsonaro government ordered the Ministry of Health to stop releasing the numbers relating to deaths and the spread of the virus. Bolsonaro actually claimed that the numbers were inflated. The Supreme Court struck down the President’s order and asked the Ministry of Health to continue to release the figures on a daily basis.

Despite the spiralling death rate, Bolsonaro wants the lockdown that many state governments have introduced to be lifted. Many evangelical church groups supporting the right-wing government have openly downplayed the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing. Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been even worse than that of his role model, the U.S. President, Donald Trump. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reported that eight million workers had lost their jobs in the first three months since the virus hit the country in March. In early April, the Brazilian government allowed big corporations to suspend labour contracts and reduce worker’s wages by up to 70 per cent. More than half the working age population in the country is now unemployed. Many of the big companies had closed down their factories citing “low market demand”.

There were also protests and strikes in factories and offices which were working as the pandemic spread like wildfire. The employees complained about the lack of safety measures in the work environment, blaming both the government and their employers. Many companies had reopened by June, spreading the infection to hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Peru

After Brazil, Peru is the second worst affected country in South America. The government in Lima, unlike its counterpart in Brasilia, was quick to implement a strict lockdown as soon as the virus crossed its borders. The lockdown was imposed on March 16, and was in place until end June, one of the longest worldwide. However, the government failed in its efforts to curtail the infection and mortality rates. The number of deaths from the virus announced by the government in early July was over 11,000. Over 3,03,000 Peruvians have been infected so far.

Most Peruvians believe that the actual figures could be much higher. The average death rate in the first six months of the year has been far above the average recorded in previous years. The deaths in Peru are estimated to be 87 per cent higher than that would be expected in a normal year. Even the official figures are staggering. The number of fatalities in Peru caused by the novel coronavirus is half of what India has reported so far. India’s population is 42 times bigger than that of Peru. Around 3,000 new infections are being reported every day in Peru.

The mortality rate among health workers in the country has been especially high. The government announced an economic relief packages worth $26 billion. The package was to be distributed among employers so that they could keep workers on the rolls. The poor and the self-employed were promised cash transfers. But the government seriously underestimated the number of those living in poverty. Only 43 per cent of the population has a bank account, making cash transfers to the poor a difficult proposition. 70 per cent of Peru’s population works in the informal sector. Around 3.2 million Peruvians have lost their jobs since the onset of the pandemic. The capital Lima is the worst hit. Around one-third of the country’s population resides in the city, with most of them living in cramped and overcrowded neighbourhoods.

South Africa

South Africa continues to have the greatest number of COVID-19 cases in the African continent. By early July, more than 2,10,000 people were affected. Egypt was in the lead with regard to the COVID-19 death toll. By the first week of July, the Egypt’s Ministry of Health had reported 3,343 COVID-19 deaths. The real numbers, like in most countries, are much more. Many Egyptian journalists and doctors have been arrested for reporting the true picture. There are reports of doctors and medical workers forced to buy protective gear with money from their pockets.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is also cause for concern. The Nigerian government lifted the lockdown it had imposed in a matter of weeks. By the first week of July, the country had recorded 29,000 coronavirus cases and 635 deaths. Lagos, the commercial capital, has become the epicentre of the pandemic in the country, recording 44 per cent of the confirmed cases. According to media reports, many Nigerians do not believe that there is a pandemic afflicting the world and are reluctant to practice social distancing and take basic precautions. The country’s health system is in a dire situation anyway.

The number of deaths in South Africa had reached 3,300 by the beginning of July. Experts warn that the death toll could peak at 70,000 by the end of the year if the government does not get its act together soon. The surge in infections followed after the government lifted the lockdown it had imposed in the end of May. The economy was teetering and the government had few options left. Even before the pandemic hit, South Africa had one of the highest unemployment rates in the world and the economy was in recession. The pandemic has worsened the situation.

The South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has reiterated that the country would not re-impose a “hard lockdown”, such as the one that was in force until May. Many South Africans were killed in police action for breaking curfew restrictions during the lockdown period. 76,000 soldiers were deployed initially to help the South African police force enforce lockdown restrictions. The number of soldiers has been reduced to 20,000 to help the police enforce COVID-19 restrictions that are still in force.

Even as experts claim that a COVID-19 vaccine would be ready only by next year, a recent report published in the London newspaper The Telegraph quoted Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (CEBM) at Oxford University and Visiting Professor at Newcastle University, as saying that there was growing evidence that the virus had been traced elsewhere before it emerged in Asia.

In the last week of June, Spanish scientists announced the discovery of COVID-19 in samples of waste water collected in the country in March 2019. Italian scientists have found traces of the virus in sewage samples in Milan and Turin in December 2019, before the virus was detected in China. Jefferson believes that the coronavirus may have lain dormant throughout the world, and emerged when environmental conditions were favourable for it to thrive. This also means that the virus can disappear as quickly as it arrived.

A letter from the Editor


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