WTHE HEN GOES I tend to? For a year and a half, covid-19 has taken hold of one country after another. Just when you think the virus is defeated, a new variant is back in full force, more contagious than the previous one. And yet, as the number of vaccinations surpasses 3 billion, glimpses of post-covid life are emerging. Already, two things are clear: that the last phase of the pandemic will be long and painful; and that covid-19 will leave a different world.
This week The Economist publishes a normality index, which reflects these two realities. Taking the pre-pandemic average to 100, it tracks things like theft, trafficking and retailing in 50 countries representing 76% of Earth’s population. Today it stands at 66, almost double the April 2020 level.
Yet the ravages of covid-19 are still apparent in many countries. Take the example of Malaysia, the worst performer on our index, which suffers a wave of infections six times more deadly than that of January and only gets 27. The main reason is that vaccination remains incomplete.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the victim of a deadly epidemic, only 2.4% of the population over the age of 12 received a single dose. Even in America, where vaccines are plentiful, only about 30% of Mississippians and Alabamans are fully protected. Although the world is set to produce around 11 billion doses of vaccine this year, it will be months before all those jabs find weapons, and longer if rich countries monopolize doses in case they could have them. need.
The lack of vaccination is aggravated by new variants. Delta, first spotted in India, is two to three times more contagious than the virus that came out of Wuhan. Cases spread so quickly that hospitals can quickly run out of beds and medical staff (and sometimes oxygen), even in places where 30% of people have had injections. Today’s variants are spreading even among the vaccinated. No mutation has yet reduced the ability of vaccines to prevent almost all serious illnesses and deaths. But the next one might.
None of this changes the fact that the pandemic will eventually subside, even though the virus itself is likely to survive. For those lucky enough to have been fully immunized and have access to new treatments, covid-19 is already rapidly becoming a non-fatal disease. In Britain, where Delta is dominant, the death rate if you’re infected is now around 0.1%, similar to seasonal flu: a danger, but manageable. If a variant required a reformulated vaccine, its creation wouldn’t take long.
However, as vaccines and treatments become more plentiful in rich countries, the anger that people in poor countries die from lack of supplies will also increase. This will cause friction between the rich countries and the others. Travel bans will separate the two worlds.
Eventually, the flights will resume, but other behavioral changes will last. Some will be deep. Take America, where the booming economy surpassed its pre-pandemic level in March, but still only scores 73 on our index, in part because big cities are quieter and more people work from home.
So far, it looks like the legacy of covid-19 will follow the pattern set by past pandemics. Nicholas Christakis of Yale University identifies three changes: collective threat leads to growth in state power; the upheaval of everyday life leads to a search for meaning; and the proximity of death which brings caution while disease rages, stimulates daring when it is over. Everyone will mark society in their own way.
When people in rich countries retreated to their homes during the closures, the state barricaded itself with them. During the pandemic, governments were the primary channel for information, policy makers, a source of money and, ultimately, vaccine providers. Roughly speaking, the governments of the rich countries paid 90 cents for every dollar of production lost. Much to their own amazement, the politicians who curtailed civil liberties found that most of their citizens applauded.
There is a vigorous academic debate over whether the lockdowns were worth it. But the great government’s legacy of the pandemic is already visible. Just look at the Biden administration’s spending plans. Whatever the problem – inequality, sluggish economic growth, security of supply chains – a bigger, more militant government seems to be the preferred solution.
There is also evidence of a renewed search for meaning. This reinforces the shift towards an identity policy on the right as well as on the left, but it goes further than that. About one in five people in Italy and the Netherlands told Pew, a pollster, that the pandemic has made their countries more religious. In Spain and Canada, around two in five people say family ties have strengthened.
Leisure has also been affected. People say they had 15% more free time. In Britain, young women spent 50% more time with their noses in a book. Literary agents were overwhelmed by the early novels. Part of that will fade: Media companies fear a “recession in attention.” But some changes will remain.
For example, people may decide they want to escape pre-pandemic chores at work, and tight labor markets may help. In Britain, applications for medical schools increased 21% in 2020. In the United States, business start-ups are at their highest level since record breaking in 2004. One in three Americans who can work at home wants to do it five days a week, according to surveys. Some bosses order people to enter the office; others try to attract them.
Those who don’t die roll the dice
It is still unclear whether the appetite for risk is about to rebound. Basically, if you survive a deadly disease, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones, and the devil can care. In the years since the Spanish Flu a century ago, a thirst for excitement erupted in everything from sexual license to the arts to the speed craze. This time around, the new frontiers could range from space travel to genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
Even before the arrival of the coronavirus, the digital revolution, climate change and the rise of China seemed to put an end to the Western order ruled by the West after World War II. The pandemic will accelerate the transformation. ■
All of our pandemic and vaccine related stories can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also listen to The Jab, our podcast on the race between injections and infections, and find trackers showing the global vaccine rollout, excess deaths by country, and the spread of the virus in Europe and America.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “The long goodbye”