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Thursday, 26 November 2020

The return of the virus

The re-emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic necessitates the start of a unified global effort to find effective treatments and a vaccine

Hany Ghoraba , Wednesday 21 Oct 2020
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While the coronavirus never really disappeared, many countries around the world are now witnessing its massive comeback after having declared that they had managed to bring the outbreak under control. 

Countries such as Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Germany had all declared that they had managed to drastically reduce cases of infection and had accordingly reopened major sectors of their economies as well as public services and recreational facilities. Now, however, there has been a reemergence of the virus in these countries and others on a massive scale, in some cases bigger than the first wave of the outbreak. 

The number of global infections of the virus has reached almost 40 million cases worldwide with over one million deaths to date. The virus has been hitting not just average citizens but also a large number of politicians and heads of state or government worldwide, including US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well as their families. Celebrities from all walks of life including sportsmen, artists and even fashion designers have not been spared the onslaught of the virus. Some have not survived it and have tragically passed away. This is an indication that no one is really safe regardless of status or wealth.  

The US is still battling a massive outbreak, and the country holds the highest position in the number of infections worldwide with nearly 8.4 million Americans infected and over 224,282 deaths thus far, a horrific number on its own. Following not far behind is India, which has had nearly 7.5 million infections and over 114,000 deaths. Brazil has been witnessing a catastrophic outbreak of the virus, with the government apparently incapable of containing it. The numbers recently broke the 5.2 million mark, and there have been nearly 153,690 deaths across the Latin American countries. The virus has also taken its toll on the Brazilian currency the real, which has plummeted against the US dollar to rank as the worst-performing currency in 2020 followed closely by the ailing Turkish lira. 

The UK is also suffering from a renewed outbreak with 17,540 new cases of coronavirus recorded on 8 October and 16,171 new cases on 17 October. The prime minister was forced to take more drastic measures, especially in northern regions of the country including Scotland. The latter has now been subjected to another three-week lockdown that has targeted hotels, bars, and other recreational facilities. 

Recovery rates from the disease remain relatively high, but they still leave a lot to be desired, especially as the current treatment protocols are still hit and miss in many cases. Despite this fact, some physicians are optimistic that the upcoming line of vaccines may be the breakthrough the world needs in combatting the virus, but even here vaccine research is subject to political feuds. 

The US media has been casting doubt on the safety of Russian and Chinese vaccines, for example, saying that they cannot be relied upon for protection as they have not been through enough testing and trials. However, the Russian vaccine was administered to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own daughter, and neither the Russian government nor the president can afford something to go wrong in this case for both personal and political reasons. 

But the Russian vaccine, named Sputnik-V, was approved by the Russian authorities without its having gone through phase three trials, and according to the UK medical journal the Lancet the results of earlier stage trials were never published. Moreover, the announcement of the Russian vaccine came against the background of increasing numbers of cases in Russia. On 10 October, 12,126 new cases were recorded, a Russian record, and a reminder that the country is ranked fourth in the world in terms of confirmed Covid-19 cases with over 1.3 million. 

On 16 October, 22 European countries hit record highs on the number of infections. There were 30,621 cases in France, 6,600 in Germany, 10,010 in Italy, 9,721 in the Czech Republic, 6,844 in Holland, and 8,099 in Poland. The Old Continent has now seen over 230,000 deaths resulting from the outbreak so far.

Scientists and physicians have been baffled as to the best way to tackle the virus, as it seems that what can work for one country often does not work for another. Conflicting reports have even been issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO), causing confusion among governments and citizens worldwide as a result. The media has been in a frenzy to cover everything possible about the virus, and in some cases it quotes physicians who may irresponsibly provide inaccurate instructions or downplay the effects of the virus to the extent of even sometimes denying its existence. 

Aside from the huge economic-stimulus packages being provided by many governments around the world to protect their citizens from the economic consequences of the pandemic, nothing else is being attempted to resolve the crisis. Complete lockdowns do not protect societies from infections, because many citizens do not fully abide by them for economic reasons or out of simple bravado. Enforcing the wearing of masks has been tried in many countries, especially in public places and facilities such as hotels, restaurants, bars and hospitals, but the crisis remains ongoing and shows no signs of slowing down.

Industrial sectors and facilities have survived the crisis thus far, despite the recessions in almost all countries, apart from a few such as Egypt, which is one of a handful witnessing positive economic growth. But the real crisis is found in the hospitality and tourism sectors, which have taken the worst hits so far. 

Aside from limited flights between countries, the aviation sector has also taken an enormous hit as a result of the virus, meaning that some companies may fail to survive if the situation continues for a few months longer. The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), a Geneva-based coalition of aviation industry organisations, has published a report warning that 46 million employees in the aviation sector out of a total of 88 million are on the brink of losing their jobs if the situation continues to exacerbate. 

The situation with hotels, bars, recreation facilities and clubs is little better, and millions of layoffs have already taken effect worldwide. With every lockdown more people join the unemployment lines, with bankruptcies becoming a daily activity. 

There is no way out of all this except by producing a working vaccine. However, since politics has played a role where it should not in the creation of a vaccine, a unified global effort should now be started to find a working treatment and vaccine such that the world can restart its economic and other activities.

Tasking a group of scientists to come up with a cure has not worked yet despite promises by the US administration and the British government that a treatment and a vaccine will emerge soon. It may require the combined efforts of the world’s virologists to create a vaccine that can be used worldwide, with its patent being sufficiently open for any country with the right pharmaceutical capabilities being able to produce it. 

The escalating numbers and gloomy economic projections do not permit us the luxury of waiting for one country or one company to make a vaccine. This must be an international project. The numbers also do not permit the luxury of fighting political wars over a vaccine while over a million people are already dead and millions of others are infected or at risk of dying in the near future. 

Will governments unify their efforts and pool their resources for the goal of a treatment and vaccine to be attained, however? It seems doubtful, judging by the currently polluted political atmosphere. 2020 has been projected as the year that will witness an economic recession worse than the 1929 Great Depression. The coronavirus crisis and the political games that have surrounded it have made that projection a self-fulfilling prophecy.

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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