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Medical staff and nurses gather during a protest at La Paz hospital in Madrid, Spain. Medical staff and nurses gather during a protest at La Paz hospital in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 5, 2020 (AP photo by Manu Fernandez).

How the Coronavirus Pandemic Upended Life as We Know It

Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has 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 has reframed domestic politics by crowding out other issues, with political performances measured against how successfully leaders have navigated their countries through the pandemic. Failure to do so has already toppled seemingly entrenched rulers, while upending politics in electoral democracies. Afraid of facing similar consequences, some governments have used the pandemic as a pretext for restricting free speech and stripping away the rule of law.

The pandemic has stalled economies and wiped out millions of jobs, leaving governments everywhere struggling to map out possible paths to recovery. There have already been calls for debt relief across the Global South. Now the second wave of the pandemic, and in some regions the third, has caused further economic damage, requiring sustained government interventions to head off catastrophe.

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

Among the victims of COVID-19 might be 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 fairly distributed remains impotent.

Instead, vaccine nationalism has resulted in some wealthy countries hoarding supplies, leaving poor countries dependent on vaccine diplomacy, which has become the latest form of international competition. Only recently, with their own populations close to being fully vaccinated, have vaccine-rich countries begun to pledge doses to those that have gone 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. Having turbo-charged America’s response to the pandemic at home, will U.S. President Joe Biden follow through on his promise to reorient its response abroad? Will the pandemic 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

In Spain and Europe, Pandemic Lockdowns Face a Legal Reckoning

In a decision with international significance, Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled in July that the country’s 50-day lockdown to counter the initial spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020 was unconstitutional and therefore illegal. The ruling highlights similar legal challenges to quarantines across Europe.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 30 days for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

Domestic Politics

The pandemic has tested countries’ political systems, while at the same time providing leaders with political cover for unpopular or illiberal measures. While some democratic leaders may face electoral consequences for their halting responses, successfully confronting the pandemic does not necessarily guarantee political immunity. Countries like Germany have seen a growing backlash to coronavirus restrictions, which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is struggling to contain. In Morocco, success may have come at the expense of human rights, as the government relied on heavy-handed policies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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. Since then, heightened tensions between the U.S. and China have impeded efforts to formulate a collective response in multilateral institutions and forums like the United Nations and the G-20. Nor has international cooperation materialized to widely distribute vaccines now that they are 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.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 30 days for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

Policy Implications

As the pandemic has upended established systems, it has given rise 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.

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 are desperately seeking strategies to revive their economies. But with the pandemic widening inequality, there are specific calls for multilateral financial institutions and governments to focus on policies that ensure wide swathes of people—especially members of the informal economy—are not left further behind.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 30 days for just $1 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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