The month of March 2020 will be remembered as the longest month in human memory, as its events have overwhelmed even the most experienced political observers and put unprecedented challenges before political and economic experts worldwide.
With over 664,103 cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus infection being recorded and nearly 30,883 deaths worldwide, the outbreak of this virus is the worst global crisis since World War II and has spared none around the globe.
The ongoing crisis has hit almost every country in the world with different levels of severity. The pandemic has hit Western countries such as the European Union countries and North America in a manner that has been far more severe than in its country of origin, China, where the outbreak is now almost under control.
The tragic death toll in Italy is currently the world’s highest, with over 10,000 deaths reported by 29 March in the stricken country. An equally alarming rate has been recorded in Spain, which has recorded nearly 6,000 deaths. France has recorded over 2,300 deaths and the United Kingdom has recorded over 1,000. With the current rate of infection, the numbers are projected to increase exponentially, as the Covid-19 virus is now reported to be out of control in these countries.
The case of the United Kingdom is peculiar, as until last week the British government was still discussing the appropriate strategy to address the situation in Europe, where the virus was crossing from country to country unopposed. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, along with a panel of experts, proposed what was called the insane idea of letting the virus rip inside the country in order to acquire what was called “herd immunity.”
The proposed system would have allowed 60 per cent of the British population, estimated at around 66 million, to be infected with the virus, which would mean 40 million people. This would create improved immunity against the virus, but would also lead to the deaths of between 300,000 and one million people in the process.
Thankfully, this bizarre plan was shunned by the British nation and was later scrapped. However, during these deliberations the rate of deaths increased in the UK, with the overall 14-day cumulative incidence rate rising from 3.3 cases per 100,000 population on 11 March to 36.1 cases per 100,000 population on 25 March. Johnson has been infected by the virus himself, along with Minister of Health Matt Hancock and the Prince of Wales. All three are in quarantine at the moment, though Johnson is still acting as prime minister.
In the United States, the virus hit the country in a Blitzkrieg-type assault covering the entire 50 states. The country has the highest numbers of Covid-19 infections at 124,655, with over 2,327 deaths reported. The states with the highest infection rates are New York, New Jersey and California. All three states are under lockdown, causing panic across the country and causing the New York Stock Market to record its worst performance in decades.
US President Donald Trump has signed the largest bailout bill in United States history, amounting to $2.2 trillion, in an attempt to calm fears of the collapse of the US economy and, with it, the collapse of the global economic system. In an unprecedented move since World War II, Trump invoked the Defence Production Act, which allows the federal government to compel companies to produce supplies and products for national defence. The reason was to compel the carmaker General Motors to produce the ventilators used to treat Covid-19 on a massive scale.
General Motors had apparently been haggling and wasting valuable time in taking the decision to produce the ventilators, and it offered lower numbers and higher prices than initially quoted. The Act now compels the company to prioritise the production of ventilators as if for war purposes, a very unusual action in a capitalist economy and particularly in that of the United States, but one that shows how far the administration will go in trying to weather the Covid-19 storm.
The myth about the superiority of Western healthcare systems has been debunked in this crisis, and the acts of desperation by governments in Italy, France, Germany, the US and other countries have exposed the massive flaws within these systems and how unready they are to face a major health crisis. Hospitals in Europe and North America appear to be understaffed and unequipped to face a challenge of the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak, and despite the heroic and tireless efforts by medical staff they have been shown to be unable to face the mounting challenges.
At no other point in modern history has the world as a whole been under such stress. The worst part is still to come, and at this point there is no approved therapy for the Covid-19 virus even if dozens of medications are being tested on patients to help curb the outbreak. The greater challenge will be to create a vaccine that can be used on a global scale as a form of protection against possible future outbreaks of the virus. It will prove challenging to develop this, since the virus has been mutating and taking different forms.
Moreover, the current economic crisis and projected economic recession after the crisis raise the question of the sustainability of the current neo-liberal capitalist model that has been unable to withstand the crisis and could still crash at any moment, rendering companies bankrupt in a matter of hours or even minutes. Companies that were founded decades if not centuries ago may find themselves filing for bankruptcy as a result of the current economic crisis, and there is an urgent need for the economic system to be rethought by the world’s economists.
It is high time to adjust the current economic model to withstand future hits without crashing entirely, but that is a bridge the world will cross after containing the current outbreak. With most cities across the world today in lockdown or at least in partial curfew in fear of further deaths and mayhem, it is high time that there was global coordination on an unprecedented scale to save the world from impending doom and keep things from falling apart.
This will require bolder and braver decision-making and leadership from all the world’s leaders.
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 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly