The tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the COVID-19 pandemic have one thing in common: both have caused a seismic change in the world. And that change, in general, is for the worse. The present pandemic has, and will have, negative effects on how people work, live, and use their free time. This huge public health crisis will affect each and every one of the 7.8 billion inhabitants of the planet.
As a consequence of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the world became a gigantic apparatus of security and control that severely curtailed individual liberties. Although that has been necessary to guarantee the lives of citizens, at the same time it allowed an intrusion of government controls on people, particularly in the United States.
However, even though the attack on the towers had great effects on citizens’ rights, they pale in the face of the consequences of the present pandemic, which not only affects the survival of millions of people but also has great economic and social effects. And although some analysts think that these effects may be short-lived, they will most likely affect the world’s population for a long time.
As usually happens in times of crisis, people more affected are generally those with the least economic resources. Millions of employees worldwide have been left without work given the widespread cessation of all kinds of activities, except the essential ones. As a result, those workers who depend exclusively on their wages and savings are unable to meet their needs and those of their families.
Although some governments have promised financial aid to those most in need – as is the case in the United States – that aid is insufficient or takes time to arrive, making it less effective. In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of workers depend entirely on their bi-weekly or monthly wages. And if that happens in the most powerful country in the world, it is easy to imagine what happens in developing countries.
Interestingly, although thousands of businesses have had to suspend their activities, large companies that sell their products through the Internet have considerably increased their workforce. Such is the case of Amazon, which added 100,000 new jobs to existing ones. However, it is estimated that the pandemic will significantly reduce the productive capacity of the economy globally, and its effects will be greater than those of the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
Social effects of the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to major changes in people’s behavior. Although the majority act with a great sense of responsibility, limiting the occasions for personal contact as much as possible, irresponsible groups put hose most susceptible to contracting the infection at risk.
This also highlights the enormous generosity of health personnel, from the humblest to the most capable, to offer their services at the risk of their lives. Government leaders may take responsibility for setting an example with their behavior, and imposing draconian measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The behavior of a few who do not comply with the isolation directives must be prevented from risking the lives of others.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me, “I want to go live in another country. I cannot stand the loss of civility we are experiencing in my country now.” If this crisis has demonstrated anything is that a sense of civility has been regained. Neighbors offering their help to buy groceries, helping older people go to urgent doctors’ appointments, care for those who depend on food deliveries among other actions.
Effect on the global balance of power
Public opinion is that neither President Donald Trump nor the leaders of some European countries such as Italy and Spain responded adequately to the challenge of this world crisis. Yuval Harari, the Israeli futurist guru, has targeted President Trump for criticism. He says that in previous crises, such as the financial crisis of 2008/09 and the Ébola epidemic of 2014, the U.S. demonstrated strong leadership, something totally lacking now because President Trump “is more interested in America’s greatness than in the future of humankind.”
One shouldn’t be surprised if as a response to the European Union being unable to adequately protect its 500 million people, some countries decide to leave Brussels and regain control of their affairs at the national level.
Instead, the early and accurate attitude of the leaders of various Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore is widely praised at the moment. It is important to emphasize this, particularly when a second wave of infections is feared in some Southeast Asian countries. In 2009, Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization had stated in this regard, “All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans and must remain on high alert for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia.”
Meanwhile, the dissatisfaction of the American public with the delay of President Donald Trump’s administration to take the necessary measures to combat the pandemic continues to grow. Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College recently wrote for Politico, “The colossal failure of the Trump administration both to keep Americans healthy and to slow the pandemic-driven implosion of the economy might shock the public enough back to insisting on something from government other than emotional satisfaction.”
Bill Gates had already warned in 2015 of the possibility of a pandemic like the one the world is currently experiencing. And his suggestions to avoid it were the following, which are still valid: Develop an excellent health system; create a medical emergency corps; join forces between medical and military resources; do simulation exercises with germs and, finally, increase funds for research and development, particularly for vaccines and diagnostic tests. Gates already warned that if the adoption of these measures did not start immediately, it would be impossible to stop the next pandemic. His words were prophetic.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and author of “AIDS: A Modern Epidemic”, a publication of the Pan American Health Organization that was selected as one of the notable publications of 1993 by the magazine “The Village Voice ” from New York.