The pandemic has transformed the lives of billions around the globe, but beyond that common experience, it has highlighted and deepened divides rather than closed them. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund warned that inequality both within and between countries will not just persist, but increase this year. It predicted that rich western nations will recover faster than expected from the crisis due to successful vaccine programmes and the ability to increase public spending and borrowing, while developing countries will struggle; the number of people in extreme poverty last year was almost 95 million above pre-pandemic projections.
At the same time, a divide is opening up between places that are experiencing some kind of new normal, with large parts of life assuming a recognisable pattern – including China, where the virus first emerged – and those plunging deeper into disaster. New Zealand and Australia are planning to open a trans-Tasman travel bubble. In Taiwan – perhaps the greatest success story – crowds happily mingle. In Israel, where more than half the population has been fully vaccinated, daily life in some ways resembles pre-pandemic times for many – though Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza remain under tight rules with relatively high infection rates. The government has faced condemnation for not vaccinating millions living under its military control. (It inoculated 100,000 who work in Israel or its settlements.)
Meanwhile, India recorded its biggest ever one-day tally of new cases on Monday: more than 100,000. Europe is struggling with a third wave. And in Latin America, a surge in the virus has hit even Chile, which ranks third in the world for vaccinations per capita. Last week, it closed its borders after two record daily increases in cases in a row.
That sends a chilling message to Britain, as it gradually loosens restrictions but faces a long haul back to something approximating life as we knew it. People are joyfully reuniting with friends and families. But Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has warned that another surge in Covid is inevitable, and documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies forecast a late summer peak, with the worst case scenario of a situation as bad as January’s – when half of all UK Covid deaths occurred.
Chile has shown the dangers of relying on vaccines alone, and perhaps of them creating a false sense of security. The prime minister should take heed as the Tory right press him to speed ahead with relaxation. It is still unclear to what extent vaccines prevent infection, and the UK faces a sharp slowing in the pace of vaccination; the pace of easing must not outrun it and must be guided by infection levels. Another risk is the importation of variants that spread faster or could even prove resistant to existing vaccines if the possibilities of foreign travel are extended.
The virus and its variants have shown how vulnerable we are to the decisions made by other nations as well as our own governments. Wealthier countries should be ensuring a fairer share of vaccines, in a more timely manner, than they have so far managed, perhaps prioritising areas with the greatest risk of variants emerging. Though global leaders talk about their plans for coming pandemics, they are failing to work together to counter this one. Some countries appear – for now at least – to be striding out of Covid’s shadow. But no one can count on going it alone.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010