COVID-19: Global distress

Some six months after the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, the infection is raging on in full fury in South Asia, North America and Africa. And many countries that had seemed to have contained the virus are witnessing a resurgence.

Published : Aug 19, 2020 07:00 IST

Outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on August 1, protesters demanding his resignation.

Outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on August 1, protesters demanding his resignation.

The worst pandemic to hit humanity in a century shows very little signs of ebbing. In fact, it was only six months ago that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). There were only around 8,000 confirmed cases at the time and only 82 confirmed cases of COVID-19 outside mainland China. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, said at the time that the PHEIC was issued to warn the international community of the danger the new virus posed to countries “with weaker health systems” that were ill-prepared to deal with it.

The spread of the virus since then graphically illustrates the fact that the international community did not pay sufficient heed to the WHO’s warning. It was only on March 11 that the WHO deemed the epidemic to be a pandemic. It has now conceded that governments around the world were slow to implement a comprehensive strategy to effectively combat the virus. By July, the pandemic had made a comeback in countries and regions where authorities had seemed to have successfully contained it. The daily cases of COVID-19 had reached a record global weekly average of 260,000 by the end of July, with 665 people dying daily around the world and the numbers of cases rising.

Australia, Japan and South Korea are witnessing a resurgence of the virus. Vietnam ordered a lockdown in the city of Da Nang in July as coronavirus cases were detected there for the first time since February. The country seemed to have successfully tackled the pandemic when it first struck the region. The Central government closed down the country to international travel and introduced strict quarantine restrictions in the third week of March.

Vietnam is heavily dependent on the tourist sector. The latest developments do not bode well for its economy. The World Bank has forecast that annual economic growth this year will be around 2.8 per cent. With coronavirus cases having been detected in the capital, Hanoi, and in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s two major cities, the Vietnamese government will face an uphill battle this time. Like most governments in the region, it has limited testing facilities. The government has had a field hospital built inside a soccer stadium in Da Nang. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told his countrymen that they had to move quickly to prevent a catastrophic spread of the virus. He said that the “early August period” would be decisive in the fight against the virus.

The Philippines, too, is facing a renewed spurt in infections. President Rodrigo Duterte has reimposed a lockdown in the capital, Manila, and surrounding areas. Leaders of over a hundred medical associations in the country issued a warning that the health system, overwhelmed by the spike in coronavirus cases, was on the verge of total collapse. The number of those affected by the virus in the Philippines was officially said to be around 107,000 in the first week of August. There have been 5,302 deaths so far. The country is the second most affected in the South-East Asian region after Indonesia. The Indonesian government reported a total of 113,134 coronavirus infections and 5,302 deaths up to early August.

‘State of disaster’

In Australia, the State of Victoria declared “a state of disaster” for six weeks. Major cities, including Melbourne, are under a strict lockdown. Australia was relatively successful in halting the spread of the pandemic in the first phase but is now facing a new challenge as it grapples with higher numbers of community transmissions and cases of unknown origin. After reporting new cases of infections, the South Korean government is now saying that the situation is under control as there is a downward trend of locally infected patients. The country has reported only 301 deaths in the past six months.

North Korea, which had been insisting that it was pandemic free, announced that a former “defector” who re-entered illegally from South Korea in the last week of July had COVID-19-like symptoms. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un immediately declared a state of emergency and ordered a lockdown in the border city of Kaesong. He warned that the development could lead to “a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country”. North Korea has received thousands of coronavirus testing kits from Russia and other countries.

Japan was also initially successful in curbing the spread of the virus but now figures among the growing list of countries where there has been a resurgence of the pandemic. The infections were largely concentrated in the capital, Tokyo, but have now spread to different parts of the country. More older people are getting affected. The country is home to the world’s oldest population. According to critics of the government, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was more focussed on reviving the economy than combating the virus. Although the Japanese government had imposed a state of emergency in the initial months of the pandemic in the effort to combat the virus, it had kept the economy more or less open. Offices, bars and restaurants were not shut. Now, Japan is reporting more than a thousand infections every day.

In Okinawa prefecture, where residents have been resenting the continued existence of a United States military base on their island, the Governor unilaterally imposed a state of emergency for two weeks in early August. The local administration is holding the U.S. base responsible for the rise in coronavirus infections. More than 248 U.S. soldiers and their dependants on the base have contracted the virus.

Protests in Israel

In Israel, thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, Tel Aviv, and cities such as Jerusalem to protest against the government’s handling of the pandemic. Twice a week throughout the summer, protesters have been gathering outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and residences, both public and private, and calling for his immediate resignation. The police have had to use water cannons and have made arrests, but the protests have continued. The Israeli government has assumed special powers until the end of 2021 under cover of tackling the pandemic. Many Israelis believe that the Netanyahu government opened up the economy too quickly, allowing the virus to resurface with lethal impact. The country is now dealing with a record number of coronavirus cases. The unemployment rate has surged up to 20 per cent.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is raging on in full fury in South Asia, North America, Latin America and Africa. When western European countries such as France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom tried to reopen their economies, the virus resurfaced, forcing governments to reintroduce quarantine measures. By early August, the numbers of those affected had crossed the 18 million mark with nearly 700,000 deaths recorded worldwide. India is the worst affected country in the South Asian region, with the COVID-19 deaths per million of the population exceeding that of neighbouring Pakistan.

The real numbers of those affected and dead are much more than is being reported in South Asian countries. Globally, India continues to occupy third place as the worst affected country behind the U.S. and Brazil. Mexico witnessed a huge spurt and has overtaken the U.K. as the country with the third highest mortality rate. By early August, the number of those dead was fast approaching the 50,000 mark. The U.S. had already recorded 156,000 deaths by the first week of August, followed by Brazil with more than 95,000 deaths.

Latin America’s plight

The pandemic has profoundly affected Latin America and the Caribbean region. By the end of July, more than 180,000 people had died in the region because of the virus. Cases have doubled in the past one month to more than 4.7 million infections. Brazil, Mexico and Peru are listed among the top 10 countries worst affected globally. The death toll in Colombia has already passed 10,000, and the infection rate is climbing fast. Economies have been devastated, leaving millions of people unemployed and starving. According to the United Nations, 16 million people in Latin America are expected to fall into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, reversing all the gains made in the past two decades.

Authoritarian regimes and corrupt elites are using the pandemic to undermine the democratic gains that people in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti and Brazil had made.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has not changed even after contracting the virus himself. He continues to rail against social distancing, the wearing of masks and quarantine measures as the mortality rate in his country is on the verge of touching the 100,000 mark. In the last week of July, the Union of Brazilian Health Workers (“UNI Saude”) complained to the International Criminal Court at the Hague accusing the Brazilian President of “committing crimes against humanity”. The union, which represents tens of thousands of Brazilian health workers, accused Bolsonaro “of serious and deadly failures” in the effort to tackle the pandemic. Bolsonaro’s “negligent and irresponsible actions”, the union said, amounted to “genocide”. In April, the Brazilian Association of Jurists for Democracy accused Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity. Brazil’s death toll is rapidly closing in on the U.S.’ death toll.

Disruption of education

In the first week of August, the U.N. released a report that said that the closures of schools and other learning spaces since the pandemic struck have affected 94 per cent of the world’s student population and up to 99 per cent in low- and middle-income countries, causing the “largest disruption” in the field of education ever witnessed in history. More than one billion students have been affected according to the U.N. When U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released the report, he said that the reopening of schools “must be the top priority” once the pandemic is under control. A report the international charity Save the Children published in July states that 10 million children may never go back to school because of deep budget cuts and rising poverty resulting from the pandemic.

Taming the pandemic may yet take quite some time to achieve. Reports have emerged that a few countries are getting ready to vaccinate their people against the virus. During a media briefing on COVID-19 on August 3, the WHO chief warned: “A number of vaccines are now in phase three clinical trials and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection. However, there’s no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be.”

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