How the Coronavirus Pandemic Upended Life as We Know It

Medical staff and nurses gather during a protest at La Paz hospital in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 5, 2020 (AP photo by Manu Fernandez).
Medical staff and nurses gather during a protest at La Paz hospital in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 5, 2020 (AP photo by Manu Fernandez).
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For over two years, the coronavirus pandemic upended life as we know it with its devastating effects not only on health, but on domestic economies and multilateral trade, cooperation and aid. It reframed domestic politics by crowding out other issues, with political performances measured against how successfully leaders navigated their countries through the pandemic. Failure to do so toppled seemingly entrenched rulers, while upending politics in electoral democracies. Afraid of facing similar consequences, some governments used the pandemic as a pretext for restricting free speech and stripping away the rule of law.

Meanwhile, the pandemic stalled economies and wiped out millions of jobs, leaving governments everywhere struggling to map out possible paths to recovery. There have been calls for debt relief across the Global South, and the economic damage has required sustained government interventions to head off catastrophe.

In light of the restrictions imposed to stop the coronavirus’s spread, deeply embedded societal structures suddenly began to receive renewed scrutiny. Mounting inequality and crackdowns on civil rights in some countries contributed to a surge in social protest movements and civil resistance. Frustrations with government responses to the pandemic encouraged broader reconsiderations of political and economic systems, and fueled calls to address legacies of police brutality, racism and colonialism. The pandemic also raised important questions about the role religion can play in a public health emergency, as some faith communities contributed to the response, while others struggled against it. And it threw into sharp relief the limits of state authority, as governments around the world struggled to provide relief in “ungoverned spaces.”

The lasting damage of COVID-19 has not spared the multilateral system and international organizations that have emerged since World War II to help ensure peace and coordinate global responses to challenges that cut across borders—like the coronavirus pandemic. Global health governance has taken a beating, with the World Health Organization criticized from all sides for its handling of the initial outbreak. Despite the rollout of effective vaccines, international coordination to ensure they are being fairly distributed remains impotent.

Instead, vaccine nationalism resulted in some wealthy countries hoarding supplies, leaving poor countries dependent on vaccine diplomacy, which became the latest form of international competition. Only when their own populations were close to being fully vaccinated did vaccine-rich countries begin to deliver doses to those that went without. Meanwhile, the global economy has also been upended, but there is no indication governments—particularly Washington and Beijing—are interested in cooperating to build more resilience.

WPR has covered the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in detail and continues to examine key questions about what might come next. What lasting impact will the pandemic have on the global distribution of power? Will it permanently alter global trade patterns? Will countries “build back better,” in terms of both green economies and social justice, after the pandemic? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Reliable COVID Data Is Still in Short Supply

Reliable and accurate data are supposed to be the bedrock of the global health governance system. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating just how difficult it is to collect such information, and why this failure has so many consequences for national and international responses to infectious disease outbreaks.

Domestic Politics

The pandemic tested countries’ political systems, while at the same time providing leaders with political cover for unpopular or illiberal measures. While some democratic leaders faced electoral consequences for their halting responses, successfully confronting the pandemic did not necessarily guarantee political immunity. Countries like Germany saw a growing backlash to coronavirus restrictions. In China, success at preventing the spread of the coronavirus has come at a heavy cost, as the government continues to rely on draconian measures that nevertheless leave the population vulnerable to more contagious variants.

Economic Fallout and Global Trade

With global trade slowed and domestic businesses battered by COVID-19 restrictions, including months-long shutdowns in some countries, governments desperately sought out strategies to revive their economies. Now, with economic activity beginning to bounce back, fears over inflation and strained supply chains have become more urgent.

Multilateral Cooperation Versus Competition

At first glance, the pandemic would seem to be a tailor-made crisis for multilateral cooperation. Instead, with a few exceptions, the initial response was characterized by “medical nationalism” and “an every country for itself” mentality. Heightened tensions between the U.S. and China impeded efforts to formulate a collective response in multilateral institutions and forums like the United Nations and the G-20. Nor did international cooperation materialize to widely distribute vaccines once they were available. But given the nature of a pandemic, in which the world’s health is only as secure as that of its weakest member, such cooperation will ultimately be necessary to stave off future waves of infection, as well as to mitigate the economic fallout and boost recoveries.

Policy Implications

As the pandemic upended established systems, it led to a reconsideration of long-accepted policies and approaches, as well as our relationship to familiar practices and institutions. While those disruptions can be destabilizing, they also give rise to opportunities to discover new models in areas like health and education, but also tourism and the relationship between governments and religions.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2021 and is regularly updated.

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