27 May 2022

How the Coronavirus Pandemic Upended Life as We Know It

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

Meanwhile, the pandemic stalled economies and wiped out millions of jobs, leaving governments everywhere struggling to map out possible paths to recovery. There have been calls for debt relief across the Global South, and the economic damage has required sustained government interventions to head off catastrophe.

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

The lasting damage of COVID-19 has not spared 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 being fairly distributed remains impotent.

Instead, vaccine nationalism resulted in some wealthy countries hoarding supplies, leaving poor countries dependent on vaccine diplomacy, which became the latest form of international competition. Only when their own populations were close to being fully vaccinated did vaccine-rich countries begin to deliver doses to those that went 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.

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