“At the root of every pandemic is an encounter between a disease-causing microorganism and a human being … It is a social phenomenon as much as it is a biological one,” writes Laura Spinney in her book Pale Rider, arguing that Spanish flu “pushed India closer to independence, South Africa closer to apartheid, and Switzerland to the brink of civil war”.
It will be a long time before we, or our descendants, can fully assess Covid’s impact. But its social and political effects are emerging more clearly. It has played a role in extraordinary turmoil in places from Colombia to Cuba to South Africa, exacerbating poverty and frustration. The unrest is rooted in longstanding social and economic problems. In South Africa, where 10,000 troops have now been deployed, it is the furious response to the jailing of the divisive former president Jacob Zuma, who faces a slew of corruption charges; authorities suspect his followers of orchestrating the violence. But Covid’s erosion of social and economic wellbeing and trust in leaders has surely contributed.
Academic studies suggest that disease outbreaks may initially suppress social disturbances, by limiting contact, but encourage it in the longer term. One, focusing on epidemics in Africa since 1990, found a marked increase in the likeliness of unrest afterwards. Other scholars analysed major epidemics from the Black Death onwards, concluding that in all but four cases revolts were clearly connected to the outbreaks. They suggested that factors included increased inequality, the impact of disease control policies (and the exploitation of the crisis for increased repression), and the tendency for the psychological shock to lead to people adopting irrational beliefs about the outbreak’s origins, encouraging social or racial discrimination.
The turbulence is likely to grow, for the pandemic is raging. It took 15 months, until this April, to claim 3 million lives. In just three months since it has taken 1 million more. Indonesia reported 56,000 cases on Thursday alone. The same day, the World Health Organization warned that the virus is surging in Latin America, could bring “catastrophic consequences” in the Middle East, and is fast gaining ground in Africa, with a million new cases in a month and a 43% leap in deaths over the past week.
In Europe, cases are rocketing, and on Monday Britain embarks on a reckless course by lifting almost all restrictions as infections soar. But western countries have higher levels of vaccination, well-resourced healthcare systems and the ability to support furlough schemes. Just 6% of the Indonesian population is fully vaccinated, and only around 1% of people across Africa, where the WHO has said that hospitals are at breaking point. Its emergency committee warned of the “strong likelihood” of the emergence and spread of new and possibly more dangerous variants of concern that may be even more challenging to control. Yet governments are increasingly focusing on narrow national needs. Multilateralism was already under profound strain when coronavirus hit.
New variants – from here or elsewhere – are a clear threat to lives worldwide. The international effects of the pandemic will continue to hit our economic wellbeing. As unrest is showing, global stability and security will suffer. Wealthier countries must now increase funding for vaccines and treatment elsewhere, share the doses they have already acquired, and waive intellectual property rights to boost production. Protecting others is the right thing to do. It is also the best way to protect ourselves.