Complex Made Simple

I was right about COVID-19, but I wish I wasn’t

With summer nearly upon us, we have yet to see a major breakthrough regarding the coronavirus pandemic - despite what we were told.

At the start of the pandemic, world leaders either downplayed the outbreak or made overly optimistic estimations of when it'll end Now, we clearly see that a Q2 climax is extremely unrealistic In fact, we are merely nearing the climax of Act 1, with a new wave of infections - an Act 2 - looming over the horizon

Opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of AMEinfo. 

COVID-19 is playing out like I imagined it would, but I wish it didn’t. I wish I was wrong. 

When the first news of COVID-19 (at the time mostly referred to as the 2019 novel coronavirus) broke out of China in late December/early January, I was alarmed, but mostly not too concerned, like I imagine most people were. There was chatter of a potential epidemic, but I chalked it up to being another foreign disease in a distant land that we often hear about on evening news. Another short-lived disease that will get some coverage on the news and then disappear as quickly as it emerged.

Obviously, this was not the case. 

A January headline covering the early days of the outbreak

Soon, this new ‘coronavirus’ term started popping up more often in international news coverage. Something about Wuhan and a wet market. Cases were increasing, and so were deaths. Symptoms involved the respiratory system. 

Okay, so this is looking more serious than I first thought, I told myself back then. So I started reading and educating myself on this new phenomena. 

Before I knew it, the word epidemic had become pandemic, and the ‘Wuhan virus’ was now the world’s virus. This new viral threat was highly contagious, and it was spreading like wildfire. Borders, passports and nationality are a nonentity to it. This was an invisible threat like none we had experienced in our lifetime. 

What unfolded in those early weeks had shocked me, and I had quickly come to a realization that many world leaders seemed oblivious to: this pandemic is here for the long run, and it will change our world forever. 

This conclusion, I thought, was simple to come by. Since most scientific bodies stated that a vaccine could be developed between 6 months (which was extremely optimistic) and a year and a half (some say 2 years or more), it was obvious a summer recovery was clearly not in the cards. In fact, even a 2020 recovery seemed implausible to me. 

Following this realization, I was shocked to learn about some countries’ reactions to the outbreak. Positive predictions for a swift end to this pandemic by Q2 were extremely hopeful at best, deluded and manipulative at worst. Even more surprising was that this ill-advised behavior was acted out mostly among first world governments: Italy, Spain, the UK and the US, among others. It seemed like these countries needed to resit their ‘First world country” diploma exams.

International negligence and blame shifting

Let’s look at Italy, which was among the first countries to take the pandemic lightly.

In February, “Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio accused the media of inflating the severity of the virus by stating that only “0.089%” of Italians was under quarantine and calling the news coverage an ‘infodemic,'” Business Insider (BI) reported.  

Soon after, Italy became the country with 2nd most cases in the world. It has since dropped to 6th place, but not before seeing around quarter of a million sick with the disease and more than 33,000 dead. For quite a while, Italy had become the posterboy of how not to react to a pandemic. 

In Spain, another COVID-19 hotspot, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had allowed large gatherings to proceed in sports stadiums and rallies despite soaring cases. In time, it unseated Italy from second place, and as of this writing sits in 4th place in terms of cases.

“In [his] defense, [Sánchez] cited the failures of other nations to quell the outbreak and noted that Spain declared a lockdown at a time when it had fewer infections than when Italy, Britain, or France declared theirs,” BI said.

I soon came to notice a trend with this blame shifting.

Not long after that, the ever-so-competitive US of A decided it wanted to take the lead in the world as usual – this time in viral cases, of all things. It did this inadvertently, of course. US President Donald Trump downplayed the virus time and time again (44 times, as of May 6), after eventually coming clean and shifting responsibility for mishandling the crisis by calling it the “China virus.” America would soon be Coronavirus Central, however. Life has its ironies, I suppose. 

The virus has devastated the US, with 1,837,170 cases and 106,195 deaths reported so far. Currently, the country is ravaged by civil unrest as citizens take to the streets in peaceful (and non-peaceful) protest in light of recent racial discrimination, further unraveling the American Dream facade the US has fabricated for itself over the years. In further blame shifting, Trump and the US have now parted ways with the World Health Organization (WHO)

“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Trump said last week.

To be fair, there were many reports that emerged stating that China had suppressed initial reports of the virus in Wuhan, which led to a delayed response that could’ve slowed the spread of the virus and allowed the world to better prepare. The blame tree goes far and wide.

In regards to the US’ overall handling of the crisis, The Atlantic’s George Packer put it perfectly: 

“The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken,” 

Considering this whole situation, I’d like to make an ammendment to Mr. Packer’s statement: 

The coronavirus didn’t break the world. It revealed what was already broken.

Indeed, the coronavirus has shown us the incompetence of world leaders, how at the end of the day, they’re as lost and confused as we are. Inaction, denial and blame shifting has now net hundreds of thousands of deaths – and counting. 

Misinformed positivity and false hopes

As lockdowns were being put in place across the world, with fancy terms like social distancing and flattening the curve getting thown around, the same leaders that failed in the prologue of the pandemic were failing in predicting an Act 2 climax for this Greek tragedy whose stage was Planet Earth. 

A popular theory floating around was that the high temperatures of summer could cause a slowdown in cases, or even eventually curtail the pandemic. Today, finding ourselves in June, I, and most people, know that is not the case. Sure, some countries are easing lockdown restrictions and some business are reopening, but it’s anything but a return to ‘normal.’ Most schools and cinemas are still closed, companies operating public spaces must enforce social distancing precautions which is eating into revenue, and hospitals continue to be filled to the brim. 

While it took leaders the arrival of June to realize that, I had foreseen this happening since February. I was baffled as I read more and more reports of falsely optimistic speeches and comments by officials in early March alluding to how X nation would get the pandemic under control by the end of May, and how by summer we would catch a break as cases drop or diminish. 

According to the BBC, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on March 19th he believes the UK can “turn the tide” against the outbreak within the next 12 weeks and the country can “send coronavirus packing”.

Well? Temperatures have been rising for quite a while now, already averaging around 40 degrees celsius over these past few weeks in the GCC, one of the world’s hottest regions. A look at the data from May, however, doesn’t show a drastic drop in cases.

Graph: Google

Graph: Google

And May is just the beginning. GCC nations are used to seeing temperatures upwards of 45 degrees celsius and even 50. If we do not follow social distancing protocols, it won’t matter if it’s beach weather or not.

“New research has bolstered the hypothesis that summer’s heat, humidity, abundant sunshine and opportunities for people to get outside should combine to inhibit — though certainly not halt — the spread of the coronavirus,” The Washington Post (TWP) writes. “Any benefit from summer conditions would probably be lost if people mistakenly believe the virus can’t spread in warm weather and abandon efforts that limit infections, such as social distancing.”

Businesses tell it as it is
The stakeholders economically impacted by this pandemic have come to terms with the reality of the situation. 

Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said air travel won’t return to pre-crisis levels until 2023, according to CNBC. This is despite the fact that IATA is “aiming at reopening and boosting the domestic market by end of the second quarter, and opening the regional or continental markets — such as Europe, North America or Asia-Pacific — by the third quarter, and intercontinental in the fall.”

Credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings predicts that European hotel occupancy rates will not recover until 2023, while global hospitality data company STR doesn’t expect RevPAR (revenue per available room) levels to return to 2019 levels until 2022 in the US. Meanwhile, MENA hotels expect a recovery starting from Q4 2020, according to Colliers International, though how realistic this is remains unclear given that COVID-19 has subverted all expectations and predictions.

The entertainment sector has not been spared either. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the global entertainment sector is set to “lose $160 billion of growth” as a result of the pandemic over the next five years, research firm Ampere Analysis estimated in a report last month in May. The research expects a recovery beginning in 2022.

And on and on it goes with other sectors that can’t pull off a Netflix or TikTok.

The three potential outcomes of this crisis

So how do we find a way out of this mess? Well, there are three ways, according to Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, who spoke with the BBC back in late March:

  1. vaccination
  2. enough people develop immunity through infection
  3. or permanently change our behaviour/society

Each of these routes would reduce the ability of the virus to spread.

With a vaccine quite a while away, our only two options in the short run are either that we permanently change our behaviour (social distancing becomes permanent, for example), or enough of the world’s population develops antibodies after being cured from the virus, contributing to herd immunity. 

Herd immunity is when enough of the population has undergone the disease and is now immune to it, which helps reduce transmission rates as virus carriers decrease in number.

“For example, if 80% of a population is immune to a virus, four out of every five people who encounter someone with the disease won’t get sick (and won’t spread the disease any further,” Gypsyamber D’Souza and David Dowdy, professors at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, explain. “In this way, the spread of infectious diseases is kept under control.”

The world is still far from herd immunity for coronavirus. Infographic: The New York Times

This method, however, is very costly in terms of human life, as quite a lot of people will die for us to achieve this mass immunity. Additionally, 100% immunity from COVID-19 has yet to be confirmed by the scientific community, as there have been cases of supposedly cured individuals contracting the virus again. 

It is clear that vaccination remains the best course of action, and no amount of denial or honeyed words will prove otherwise. However, a few countries, like Germany, have proven that option 3 – of altering our behavior – is viable while we wait for a vaccine, but it requries compliance and initiative from both governments and the general population. That is the challenge we will have to contend with for the time being. 

And I’ll let you in on my next prediction. Quite frankly, I don’t see this happening on a worldwide scale. Even if in a perfect scenario, all of the world’s governments adhere to the strictest protocols for curbing the spread of COVID-19, how do you regulate the entirety of the world’s populations? Families behind closed doors, the poor living in overcrowded living quarters, and even the negligent or ignorant who claim the virus is fake or born of 5G cell towers, and that nurses are actors in one big mass conspiracy? Infection is literally one cough or handshake away.

At the end of the day, humans are an uncontrollable variable, even if we like to think they aren’t, and this uncontrollable variable will only compound this uncertain future.