This week, the world marked a grim milestone as the 1 millionth death from the COVID-19 pandemic was recorded. The death count grows by several thousand every day. Horrific as that number is, it is likely that the actual death count is much higher. It will certainly grow: Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the emergency program at the World Health Organization (WHO), warns that even 2 million deaths are possible.
Those deaths — over 1,500 of which occurred in Japan — are a fraction of the more than 33 million people around the world who have been infected with the disease in the nine months since COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China. For those who survive the infection, life can be limited and painful, with lingering side effects that range from the inconvenient to the crippling. Unquantifiable, but no less debilitating are the psychic and psychological suffering that is inflicted. The global community is unlikely to ever know the cost of the loss of human contact, the divided families, uncertainty, fear and in some cases raw hostility that is being generated.
The economic impact of this crisis has reached historic proportions; and while not as bad as the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is thought to be about three times worse than the Great Recession of over a decade ago. The World Bank believes that this will be the first time since the Asian Economic Crisis of 1998 that global poverty will rise, with about 500 million people becoming impoverished as a result of the pandemic. In the East Asia and Pacific regions alone, some 38 million people are expected to either remain in, or return to, poverty.
Economic impacts vary. Japan, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is expected to experience a decline of 5.8 percent in 2020, with a recovery to 2.4 percent growth in 2021. The IMF predicted that European GDP (including the United Kingdom) will drop by 10.2 percent this year, while the U.S. economy will shrink by 8 percent. The World Bank forecasts that China, the country first hit by the coronavirus, will grow 2.0 percent this year and 7.9 percent in 2021. India, another driver of regional growth but the second hardest-hit country with more than 6 million confirmed cases, is expected to experience a 9 percent contraction this year, before rebounding to 8 percent growth in 2021.
The rest of East Asia will not fare as well. Those economies are projected to shrink by 3.5 percent this year and then return to 5.1 percent growth in 2021. While any recovery is to be applauded, these numbers are smaller than estimates before the crisis.
Millions of jobs have been lost and lives changed. In many countries, workers are already being hired back but elsewhere the rise in unemployment may be enduring. Unfortunately, many of the hardest hit countries are least able to cushion the blows, lacking social safety nets. The current crisis has pushed those governments, historically stingy, to do more. The World Bank, for its part, applauds regional governments that have committed nearly 5 percent of their GDP to public health and support for households and companies during the pandemic. This is in their self-interest: Experts and economists fear that without remedial measures, COVID could depress East Asia’s growth over the next 10 years by 1 percentage point a year.
As debilitating as those losses are, and equally disruptive over time, is the damage that the outbreak has done to international relations. It is too early to say if COVID-19 will lead to a permanent shift in the global balance of power — much depends on whether the United States, where over 200,000 lives have been lost, gets control of the situation and regains its status as a trusted leader committed to cooperative, multilateral solutions. The fumbling response from the U.S. — 20 percent of all deaths despite just 4 percent of the global population — has done great damage to its standing and image in the world. U.S. President Donald Trump has preferred to blame China for his country’s misfortunes and to penalize the WHO for putting cooperation above name calling.
Few leaders and governments have acquitted themselves well. But the nature of any pandemic threat and the connections of the global economy — whether the specific vaccine and personal protective equipment supply chains or the general linkages that ensure its smooth function in normal times — demand coordinated transnational responses. To date, the world has failed.
There will be a second chance. COVID is gaining traction in the southern hemisphere and second waves are swelling in countries in Europe and Asia. Some experts believe that Japan experienced that surge in August. The U.S. is bracing for a second wave as well. The basic steps that individuals must take are known: wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands. Governments must look at the big picture: testing, contract tracing, quarantining and preparing their societies for economic and social hardships while doing their best to cushion the hardships. Japan should be supporting and driving diplomacy – while ensuring that it follows best practices at home.
The Japan Times Editorial Board