The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has taken the world by storm in record time. What used to be scenes from a Hollywood movie or lines from a Dan Brown novel have now become shocking reality as scenes from the spread of the virus around the world have become a non-refutable reality.
Not since the early days of the last century has the world witnessed such an alarming warning of the spread of a disease on a global scale. This is not the first time that a pandemic virus has caused worldwide concern, such as in the earlier outbreaks of diseases as mad cow disease, SARS, Ebola and others.
But this time around the virus is jumping from one country to another in record time thanks to modern methods of transportation that have made the world into a global village.
On 22 March, the number of infected people exceeded 308,000, among whom 95,828 had recovered, but there was also a death toll of more than 13,069 people worldwide. Italy has been the most affected country, with an escalating death toll set at 4,825 on 22 March, going beyond the number of victims of the virus in China which was the ground zero of the infection.
Despite the lockdowns and curfew enforced across the Italian state, the number of the infected is rising exponentially and has exceeded the capabilities of the Italian health services to treat the virus.
Covid-19 has struck Europe the hardest, with death tolls being reported in Spain at 1,381 people, France with 562 and the UK with 233 on 22 March. These numbers are projected to increase dramatically in the coming days and weeks before they begin to stabilise if proper measures of containment are applied. It is to be hoped that effective therapies and a vaccine can soon be found.
The new coronavirus crisis can also be considered as the first major test of the European Union in the face of a regional or global challenge. However, all its protocols, safety measures and health precautions have failed miserably to contain the outbreak, which has forced the closure of borders between EU countries as well as the grounding of flights for the first time since the end of World War II.
The speed of the spread of the infection and the panic it has given rise to are worse than previous viral epidemics because the virus’s nature is relatively unknown. It can be spread through the air without direct bodily contact, causing widespread panic across the world.
Mass prayers have been limited in many countries to include mosques, churches, synagogues and temples. Islam’s holiest site in Mecca in Saudi Arabia has been evacuated for the first time ever, and the same thing has been applied to St Peter’s in the Vatican in Italy, where all mass prayers have been halted to prevent infections from spreading further.
China, which reported the first case of the Covid-19 virus late last year, has managed to successfully control the outbreak in a manner that has surpassed many expectations due to infections that reached over 81,054 reported cases. 72,440 of these have now recovered, and 3,261 have died. There were still over 5,353 active cases in China as of 22 March.
The local authorities and medical teams in China have been extremely successful in containing the virus. But the Chinese government’s and Wuhan authorities’ early cover-up of the outbreak is one of the main reasons for the global spread that is now threatening the lives of millions worldwide. The Chinese government is reported to have deliberately silenced Li Wenliang, a doctor who was threatened on 30 December with arrest in Wuhan if he did not remain silent about the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
Wenliang warned of the potentially extreme danger of the virus and heroically died later after catching it. The Chinese authorities, who initially reprimanded Wenliang, have since issued a “solemn apology” to his family after they exonerated him of all charges.
However, the late action as a result of Wenliang’s warning by the Chinese authorities was still China’s “Chernobyl moment,” resembling the late response and denials of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union in 1986 that caused massive losses in the country and resulted in the deaths of thousands in the former USSR and other countries.
The viral outbreak has also caused unprecedented global economic losses worldwide, with the New York Stock Exchange crashing in a manner worse than the “Black Monday” crash of 1987. By 16 March, the index had lost 2,997 points as a result of the panic that hit the market after the viral outbreak that has now caused over 200 deaths in the United States and spread to all 50 states of the union.
The US Senate is discussing a plan for a $1.6 trillion stimulus package to counter the massive losses of American businesses and citizens, but unless the fall of the stock market stops in the upcoming weeks and stocks regain some of their momentum, even this gigantic stimulus package may not be enough to cover the losses on a long-term basis.
Moreover, the response to the outbreak has ranged from the exemplary, as in the case of Egypt, to the abysmal, as in the case of Italy and other European countries.
The Egyptian government has been widely commended for its response and for the measures that have kept the population of the country safe despite some reported breaches of the lockdown by some irresponsible individuals. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has announced the allocation of LE100 billion ($6.4 billion) to counter the effects of Covid-19, and the government is taking all necessary measures to contain its effects on health and on the economy and society.
The panic spread across the globe as a result of the virus has caused the halting of almost all public events, including sports events such as football and basketball leagues abroad and in Egypt. The upcoming football tournaments of the Euro 2020 and the Copa America 2020 have been postponed to 2021. The fate of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics remains in the balance despite the assurances of its Japanese hosts that the games will take place on time.
The pandemic appears to be the biggest threat to the world in many decades, with some religious figures even comparing it to an end-of-times apocalyptic scenario. With the unprecedented global spread of the coronavirus, neither complacency nor panic will help in curbing its effects. While the global outbreak is one of the worst crises to confront humanity and represents a global challenge, it is not the end of the world and these are not the end of days, as the doomsters may be preaching in various corners of the world.
The world has survived worse pandemics and global crises, yet humans came back stronger, more aware, and better prepared. Reasons to remain optimistic include the fact that for the first time in history every country has its brightest scientists working to find a vaccine and a cure, and already tested combinations are showing positive signs of hope that the current nightmare may end in the coming weeks or months.
However, the crisis has not yet reached its peak, and further deaths and economic losses will occur in the coming months before a cure for the disease is approved and available for public consumption. Panic will not help in handling the crisis, as people panicking can be worse than the deadliest of viruses.
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 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly