IF there was ever a moment in modern history when life as we know it came to a halt, it was the beginning of the year 2020. As the world woke up to the terms ‘coronavirus’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘prevention protocols’ in March, our everyday realities stood transformed. And they kept getting transformed through the year.

The unimaginable became the new normal. Mandatory work from home, online classes for school children, prolonged periods of isolation and the shutdown of air and road traffic are all very 2020 mundanities. But while volumes can be written about our individual and collective suffering, the end of this tumultuous year offers us a moment to seriously reflect on the lessons learnt in the handling of the pandemic as well as an important one on our relationship with the planet.

Several factors determined the devastation in each country: how early in the year the pandemic hit, what the science was saying, what resources were available and, most importantly, the mood of the political leadership.

In China, where the outbreak was first reported, the regime effectively shut down areas where cases were high. Because of the awareness of SARS and the high mortality rate associated with it, the government was quick to act both with lockdown enforcement and also in mass-producing personal protective equipment.

Compliance with basic prevention methods, such as a face covering, was already high mainly because masks are commonly worn by citizens due to high levels of pollution. The rapid response of the government and its no-nonsense approach to mitigation were two major factors which kept the total reported cases and deaths from coronavirus low in the country that was first hit. Moreover, its effective lowering of the curve meant that though the economy contracted at first, China’s post-pandemic recovery was promising.

In the United Kingdom and the United States, however, the delayed and at times logic-defying response of the political leadership resulted in colossal damage to lives and livelihoods. While the UK government delayed lockdown despite evidence that suggested it should do otherwise, in the US, President Donald Trump’s response proved to be the biggest disaster, and that explains the record highest number of reported cases and Covid-19 deaths in the US along with a significant hit to the economy.

That the US president’s early response was steeped in racism and a denial of science was a huge blow not only to America’s public health bodies, but also to the world at large. Trump’s attacks on the WHO and on his country’s own leading health experts were hugely problematic. Surely, the 19 million cases and over 330,000 deaths could have been lowered. His peddling of disinformation, too, hurt the crucial awareness campaigns.

Brazil, where President Bolsonaro led the ‘coronavirus-denial movement’, had the second highest deaths. In regional terms, owing to a variety of reasons, Europe was the worst hit, reporting half-a-million of the global 1.76 million Covid deaths.

Amid all this gloom, what shone through was the proactive and evidence-based approach adopted by the heads of government in Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Singapore and Vietnam. They demonstrated that, given the right leadership, Covid-19 can be contained. What is also significant is that two of these five countries had female-led governments, a fact that forms the basis of analysis published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum which suggests that “proactive and coordinated policy responses” adopted by female leaders were successful.

Another major learning from the pandemic lies in the choices we made, or were forced to make in some cases, at an individual level. The decision by some to stay home for protracted periods even when public activity was going back to ‘normal’ came at the cost of mental health. Where social media was full of advocates of ‘stay home to save lives’, in countries where government support was poor, many daily wage workers did not have the privilege of staying home and living off savings.

In India, horror stories emerged of migrant workers crushed by poverty as lockdown was enforced. Some resorted to eating rotten food, while others walked miles to return to their homes outside big cities. In heavily populated, water-stressed countries, social distancing and regular handwashing seemed like a cruel joke.

As the world pins its hope on a coronavirus vaccine and optimism grows, it is important to learn from 2020 when the next pandemic comes. As human activity triggers climate change and environmental degradation, our relationship with animals and forests must be re-imagined. Since nearly all pandemics are caused by zoonotic diseases that spread from animals to humans, our destruction of the environment, encroachment of forests, the growth of agriculture and the proliferation of wildlife trade all make us vulnerable to another outbreak. Accessible and affordable healthcare, humane, clear-headed leadership and a green post-Covid-19 recovery all need investment.

The immediate focus on a solution, however, was on finding an effective vaccine against the virus. The availability of vaccines, a few of them actually, was surely evidence of an unprecedented scientific effort to find a solution to the 2020 tragedy, but before the year bowed out, there was already talk of a mutated form of coronavirus marking the second wave. Entering 2021, the world was still on thin ice.

Data has been updated till Dec 29, 2020.

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