Patterns riddle the pandemic casualty list. Some may mean nothing, but others that do help chart any future trajectory. Our kitty already tells us the pandemic is not going away until everyone is 'social distancing', which is not happening inside the critical countries. No effective medicine can hit the market until at least next year. Given the pandemic's ferocity and velocity, that is too long a wait to shape present expectations and design policy responses.
With almost 3 million world-wide infections and over 200,000 deaths, seventeen countries have joined the 'thousand-fatality club' (as of Sunday 26th April morning, Dhaka time): the United States (54,000+), Italy (26,000+), France (23,000+), Spain (23,000+), Great Britain (20,000+), Belgium (7,000+), Germany (almost 6,000+), Iran (6,000+), China (where it all began, almost 5,000), the Netherlands (about 4,500+), Brazil (4,000+), Turkey (just under 3,000), Canada (approaching 3,000), Sweden (crossing 2,000), Switzerland (under 2,000), Mexico (reaching 1,500), and Ireland (just entering the 'thousand club'). With the North Atlantic zone as the geographical anchor (in spite of a paradoxical China start), Latin America, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, in that alphabetical order, elicit attention.
Before discussing that geographical spread, culture, with both economic and political ramifications, sheds some light. North Atlantic individualism suggests so. It is more a product of this zone than anywhere else on earth, either dominating or combining with collective culture, while influencing market transactions (yet receptive to state interventions), and evoking democratic governance, albeit increasingly imperfectly. Resonating also in antipodal Australia and New Zealand, and tentatively Japan, three casualty streams can be discerned: those at the 'deep-end' (the Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and the United States), the 'shallow' (Australia, with under 100 fatalities, the Baltic states, each under 50, and New Zealand's under 20), and 'mid-stream' (Denmark's under 400, Finland's under 200, Norway's barely 200, et al). How early and exhaustively lockdown and 'social-distancing' rules were adopted may explain why so.
Three arbitrary infection clusters, the 'good', 'bad', and 'ugly', facilitate future projections. Countries not in the '1,000-club' fall in the 'good' basket, all others within that club having under 20,000 fatalities the 'bad', with those above 20,000 exemplifying the 'ugly' category. Transitions from the 'ugly' to the 'bad', thence 'good', supply crucial information.
Returning to the arenas identified, Latin America comes alphabetically first. 'Thousand-club' members, Mexico, straddles the north, and Brazil, hugs the south, though Ecuador and Peru with over 600 fatalities, Colombia and Dominican Republican with under 300, and Argentina, Panama under 200 need barometric recognition. Collective culture south of the United States encourages dissemination, aided, no less by the constantly high emigrant population. As the U.S. farm season dawns, guest workers waiting to travel fan a possible viral flame.
Likewise for Europe's southern borders, in a straight line east from the Atlantic, Morocco (under 200), Algeria (under 500), Tunisia (under 100), Libya (under 5), and Egypt (under 300) show figures that could become pregnant. South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize called this the "calm . . . before a heavy and devastating storm." His country's successful lockdown (pandemic fatality under 100), owes much to a nurse-army effectively pre-empting diffusion across the countryside. Urban poverty may thwart that, but Mkhize's observation better alludes to Africa's contagious collective culture inhibiting effective 'social distancing'. Illegal emigration to Europe, whose high-season knocks, remains the other fly in Africa's ointment. Russia (under 700) and '1,000-club' member Turkey, expose Europe's eastern and south-eastern borders as next-wave threats. Yet, riddled with refugee landmines, countries in Africa and east Mediterranean expose a frailty also threatening Asia, especially countries like Bangladesh.
Future outbursts (the next waves), loom over Asia. Iran's mid-March Now Ruz (New Year) travels accelerated the country into its '1,000-club' membership. Except for remarkably successful pre-emptive Vietnam (whose early lockdown has prevented fatalities), many Southeast Asian countries should worry from possible Chinese citizens returning from China's aborted February new-year celebrations, or traveling Chinese developers/investors: the Philippines to its east (500+), Indonesia to its south (750+), but also lightweight Malaysia (just crossing 100), Singapore (just hitting double-digits), and Thailand (just crossing 50).
With a far, lower average population age, South Asian countries have, thus far, surprisingly escaped the fire. Though testing methods and reporting credibility remains questionable, Bangladesh (approaching 150), India (800+), and Sri Lanka (under 10), have begun easing, while Pakistan (250+) piles up more Ramadan pressures. A single outburst here could be catastrophic. Many remittance-suppliers have begun returning home, increasing vulnerabilities.
Much can be learned from South Korea's and Taiwan's draconic clampdown from the start, with large-scale and effective testing, but Japan's cautious recovery now faces a 'second' wave threatening mostly the huge elderly population. Still, pandemic control infrastructures, such as testing-kits, ventilators, and hospitals, among others (including professional medical staff and personal protective equipments [PPEs]), in all these countries serve as much-needed models for other Asian countries. While appropriate infrastructure-deficiency might partly explain the time-lag in the death-rate climb across some (Bangladesh, India), infrastructure-building, developers, and Chinese funding expose the kind of external dependency thwarting effective pandemic controls. If another North Atlantic pattern of a higher-than-routine social ratio (of medical staff and care-givers contracting the disease and dying), is any guide, then the meagre Asian medical staff proportion literally imposes a devastating future in many countries.
These render the fears of a pandemic very unlikely to finish this year. It will bring not only enormous social upheavals, as much from economic disruptions as outright discrimination, but the scale of food shortages and social unrest may hit unparalleled domains: many climbing out of the poverty cluster over the past several years will now find themselves returning below that line, compounding more than income and productivity. More than social security is at stake.
Today's 'ugly' basket countries will then look relatively better, as other 'ugly' ducklings across Africa, Asia, and Latin America grab the headlines. Urgent PPE preparation, practising 'social distancing', and readjusting hospital and other infrastructures may now be the best investments these countries can make against diminishing funds.
What comes out starkly is how laissez-faire and democracy have become victimised: inhibitions to return to routine lifestyles get frowned upon, as in Michigan where die-hard Republicans actually violated social distancing rules for political purposes, to protest the Democrat Governor's measures; any slow slide into the crisis permits enough of the bug to spread, causing widespread and intensive subsequent damage; and if that does not happen, the desire to rapidly return to normalcy because the free-market will collapse, a genuine concern.
Post-pandemic conditions encourage populists to creep out of the cracks, and if that bridge has already been crossed, as in the Atlantic zone, then catapult to leadership. Protectionist policies, declining global cooperation, and sclerotic economic growth depict the worst combination in a century, with a future, behind a negative 2020 growth, looking even bleaker. Like in Gresham Law's ('bad' drives out the 'good'), here too, the 'ugly' thumps out the 'good'.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and Head, Global Studies & Governance Programme at Independent University, Bangladesh. [email protected]