Speaking in Vancouver in 2015, Bill Gates predicted that “If anything kills over 10 million people over the next few decades, it is likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than war.”
His words – largely disregarded at the time – now seem horribly prescient. Both COVID-19 and the various measures adopted to try and mitigate its spread have touched almost every area of the human experience.
The most immediate impact has been on the almost 7 million people known to have contracted the disease to date (although it is likely that the true total is several times this, given to the limitations of testing in many areas, and the fact that many people who contract the disease seem to experience either no or very mild symptoms).
For a small percentage of people (especially, it seems, men, the elderly, and people with underlying health conditions) the virus can escalate into a life-threatening condition. Almost every country in the world has reported “excess death rates” far higher than usual – in the USA, which has the highest number of fatalities, over 100 000 people have succumbed.
Survivors often face protracted recoveries. People who have been diagnosed have to undergo periods of self-isolation and quarantine and cannot work or spend time with their families.
The coronavirus has placed an immense strain on health services – especially in developing countries where these were already under pressure. Resources have had to be diverted away from other health issues, meaning cancelled operations, transplants and vaccinations, with sometimes serious consequences for other patients.
Is the cure worse than the disease?
While many governments have been accused of being slow to respond to this emerging health threat, others acted swiftly. Various measures have been adopted, including the now largely discredited “herd immunity” approach (tried in Sweden, initially in the UK, and to some extent in the Netherlands).
Almost all countries that have acknowledged the seriousness of the danger have imposed some form of lockdown (one of many new words that have become part of the everyday lexicon in 2020).
Lockdown measures typically include ordering businesses to close, restricting people’s rights to gather and travel, and encouraging working from home and social distancing. The degrees to which these have been successful has depended on circumstances.
Authoritarian regimes such as China have been able to lockdown entire cities; countries such as the USA where citizens have a different notion of liberty, have had less success.
Nations with populations that are seen as more compliant (South Korea and Singapore, for example) were largely able to confine the spread of COVID-19. Geographical isolation (as in the case of New Zealand) also contributed to successful outcomes.
Some of the countries which have been worst affected are those where leaders have denied the existence of an issue or disputed the advice of their own scientific experts. Russia, Brazil and the USA all fall into this category, and it is alleged that these counties have experienced needlessly high numbers of deaths.
Adjusting to a new normal
Lockdowns have resulted in radical changes to the way that people live. Everyday activities like meeting friends, having a haircut or going to work were suddenly discouraged, impossible or even illegal.
People reacted by panic buying, and COVID-19 came to completely dominate all media outlets. Previously unthinkable measures like wearing masks in public, staying two metres away from other people and mass home-schooling became normal overnight.
There was a need for people to adjust to being far less mobile and social. Access to certain goods was restricted, and freedom of movement and association was suspended.
In many countries, people were asked to work from home. Millions of people have lost their jobs due to business closures and failures, or not being allowed to work. Wealthier nations have been able to provide safety nets; poorer ones cannot.
The speed with which lockdowns were implemented, and their severity, varied widely. South Africans endured one of the most stringent lockdowns, while citizens of India were given mere hours to prepare.
While we are all still adjusting to the “new normal” (also referred to as the “no-touch world”) certain lessons are already being learned. With an effective vaccination estimated to be at least a year away, and no certain cure available, the coronavirus and measures to limit its impact are likely to be with us until well into 2021.
It is worth considering both the immediate and longer-term effects of a situation which has both unified people in suffering and hardship and caused (and exposed) divisions.
It has been estimated by the World Bank that the coronavirus will push 60 million vulnerable people into extreme poverty (defined as living on less than US$1.90 per person per day), reversing much of the work that has been done towards achieving the SDG targets.
The World Bank President, David Malpass, has described the coronavirus pandemic as a “devastating blow to the world economy”.
As with all crises, the most marginalised people are likely to suffer most, as they have the least access to resources (especially medical care and information) and sanitation, as well as lacking any real financial resilience if they are denied access to work or markets.
Very little data is yet available, but it seems reasonable to assume that increased poverty will have further negative consequences including malnutrition, increases in certain forms of crime, and additional suffering for people whose lives were already difficult.
It could be many years before the full mental health consequences of the pandemic and lockdown are known. Humans are inherently social creatures and do not do well with any form of prolonged isolation or separation.
The anxiety surrounding the disease itself and its economic consequences could fuel a further pandemic of depression and even suicide. The most directly comparable event in (almost) living memory, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, resulted in a so-called “lost generation” of people living with the aftermath.
People tend to blame misfortune on the “other” – that is, on outsiders or foreigners. The Spanish Flu pandemic mentioned earlier is a case in point: while its genesis is not fully understood, it almost certainly did not originate from Spain. Xenophobia could well increase as a result of this “foreign” disease.
Enforced isolation will impact on the fabric of both families and communities, and expose inequalities (between the haves, who are better positioned to undergo lockdowns and their aftermath; and the have-nots, who cannot).
This could lead to tensions, which may then be ignited by other events (as I write, Black Lives Matters protests are taking place in many cities – sparked by the death of one man, but fuelled by years of resentment over unequal treatment).
Modern information economies with high degrees of digital connectivity have felt less of an impact than those economic frameworks built on direct human actions. Digital innovations from food delivery apps to video conferencing software have enabled those people with access to the internet and economic resources to find workarounds for many of the inconveniences of lockdowns.
It’s likely that in the post-corona world, many more interactions and transactions will take place digitally. This could spell the end of cash as a tangible thing, and change which skills and aptitudes are in demand and can be monetised.
Again, economics will likely dictate which societies can keep up with – and take advantage of – these changes – and which are left behind.
What kind of societies will emerge after the pandemic? How will people’s expectations and demands change? How will artists respond to and reflect the events of 2020?
COVID-19 has posed more questions than it has answered – in every sphere of human endeavour.
Social entrepreneurship and COVID-19
On thing, however, is clear: the world will never be the same again. As an NGO committed to empowering social entrepreneurship, our mission is to protect the progress that has already been made in the areas of poverty reduction, gender equality and integrating women into the economy.
There is a real danger of backsliding at present – this cannot be allowed to happen. We will redouble our efforts to help people in emerging economies hold on to the gains that they have made through their own efforts.
While the future seems less positive than at any time in recent decades, there are still reasons to be optimistic. The informal sector is renowned for its powers of innovation and its agility. Time and again, it has demonstrated its ability to bounce back from setbacks that seemed lethal when they first became apparent.
Now more than ever, these features of social entrepreneurship will be needed to rescue the situation. At Fondation-LAB, we’re determined to be there for women social entrepreneurs and to help them acquire the skills and mindsets they need to recover from the coronavirus epidemic, and take advantage of the opportunities that the entrepreneurial spirit will identify and illuminate in the post-corona world.