Are we in for the long haul? This is the question that is uppermost in the worried minds of all leaders the world over. And here too we are confronted with the same interrogation: How long will it take for Mauritius to gain control over the pandemic that has come to strike at us in our comfort zone? If we go by the informed opinion of public health specialists and others in diverse fields of scientific research, AI, Data Analysis and Scenario Planning as well as historians, it will take many more months, probably one year for us and most other countries to come back to the situation of normalcy existing before the onset of the pandemic – but not exactly as close to what we had lived earlier: it will be a ‘new normal’, for the way that things are evolving make it almost certain that the world will never be the same again.
Ian Goldin, a professor of globalisation and development at the University of Oxford and Robert Muggah, lecturer at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro refer to Harvard University researchers who believe that 20% to 60% of the global population could be infected, and conservatively estimate that 14 to 42 million people might lose their lives. ‘The extent to which direct and excess mortality is prevented depends on how quickly societies can reduce new infections, isolate the sick and mobilise health services, and on how long relapses can be prevented and contained. Without a vaccine, COVID-19 will be a hugely disruptive force for years.’
They add that the pandemic will be especially damaging to poorer and more vulnerable communities within many countries, highlighting the risks associated with rising inequality. The challenges are even more dramatic in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, where health systems are considerably weaker and governments less able to respond.
Their grim forecast is that ‘the economic fallout from Covid-19 will be dramatic everywhere. The severity of the impacts depends on how long the pandemic lasts, and the national and international response of governments. But even in the best case it will far exceed that of the 2008 economic crisis in its scale and global impact, leading to losses which could exceed $9 trillion, or well over 10% of global GDP.
In poor communities where many individuals share a single room and depend on going out to work to put food on the table, the call for social isolation will be very difficult if not impossible to adhere to. Around the world, as individuals lose their incomes, we should expect rapidly rising homelessness and hunger.’
If that’s going to be the new normal until such time that a vaccine is developed and tested and a massive vaccination campaign started by governments around the world, then we should get ready to face the many challenges that the next weeks and months of disruption portend. Countries that are able to respond quickly to new and emerging challenges, and change strategies in response to rapidly unfolding scenarios, will be able to deal with highly disruptive events and pressing issues that will come to affect their peoples in the coming months. Rising unemployment (in the US a record 3.3 million people have already filed for unemployment benefit) is looming large. Already across Europe unemployment similarly is reaching record levels, according to the University of Oxford academics quoted above, who add that ‘governments should focus on providing all in need with a basic income, to ensure that no-one starves as a result of the crisis. While the concept of basic income guarantees seemed utopian only a month ago, it now needs to be at the centre of every government’s agenda.’
Solidarity funds, launched in many countries as well as locally, may represent a beginning to cope with the immediate shortfalls and requirements of the most vulnerable segments of society, but it is the long term that needs to be addressed. This will require state-driven strategic thinking and planning with the involvement of all stakeholders in both the public and private sectors. Only the State can do that. Such a move must begin immediately even as simultaneously all support must be given to the frontliners in all the essential services, the health sector personnel in particular, who are battling Covid-19 with resources that will need to be constantly upgraded. There are very hard times ahead, and only by all its brains working together with clear focus will the country be able to face the many social and economic problems that are inevitably going to surge, and only too soon.
* Published in print edition on 30 March 2020