Writing in The Telegraph (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/10/10/lockdown-unleashing-humanitarian-storm/?utm_content=telegraph&utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1602341257) on 10th October 2020, Dr Fox wrote:
Around the world, governments are struggling to deal with the public health aspects of Covid-19, a problem with options but no solutions. The difficult balance between restricting the behaviour of people to prevent the spread of the disease on one hand and maintaining sufficient economic activity to guarantee future prosperity on the other is proving elusive.
History tells us that in a pandemic where there is no cure or vaccine the infection will continue to spread through populations that have no immunity – and that this can last potentially for a very long time. Even if a vaccine comes, it won’t come soon and certainly not in sufficient supply to provide the mass immunisation that would be required to contain what is now a truly global pandemic. Many world leaders seem bewildered, even paralysed, by their lack of sovereign control over a microbe that is too small to be seen with the human eye. Yet they need to look beyond their own territorial interests, and the short term, to the developing international picture. For there is a storm coming, the political effects of which could be even more devastating than the pandemic itself.
Forecasts for the global economy remain extremely gloomy with some predicted effects already being felt. In the second quarter of 2020, the volume of global trade fell by 14.3 per cent as economies implemented strict lockdown measures, sharper than the 10.2 per cent drop recorded in the fourth quarter of 2009 as a result of the financial crisis. The latest IMF predictions may be marginally less dire than a few months ago but they make clear that “the calamity is far from over” and that recovery is still hugely dependent on the larger economies pumping money into the maintenance of jobs and capacity. Global GDP is now expected to contract by anything from three per cent (IMF), 5.2 per cent (World Bank) or even the OECD’s double-hit scenario of 7.6 per cent.
As unemployment climbs in the world’s wealthiest economies, demand from consumers is likely to drop with a potentially huge knock-on effect to the world’s developing countries. As their exports fall and foreign currency earnings diminish, combined with reduced overseas remittances as migrant workers find jobs more scarce, we may well see mounting debt problems that could have a domino effect and create another wave of global financial instability. Another more basic problem is hunger, with fears we could see a global health emergency turn into a humanitarian one. The number of people facing food insecurity is projected to double due to the coronavirus pandemic with Latin America being hardest hit, followed by west and central Africa. New export restrictions coupled with diminished harvests may add to the more than 100 million people undernourished in the world.
The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that for every one per cent increase in hunger, there is a two per cent increase in migration, so problems will not be contained within the borders of those countries affected. As David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, put it “until the day we have a medical vaccine, food is the best vaccine against chaos”.
It is astonishing how little political debate there has been about the huge global problems created by the pandemic and the lack of urgency with which they are being met. There are a number of potential reasons for this – but there is also a much more fundamental, and more painful, question to be faced. How much of the global economic situation is created by the pandemic itself and how much is created by our response to it?
So far, there have been around a million Covid-related deaths worldwide, each a personal tragedy, but recent World Health Organisation estimates suggest that between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths occur annually from influenza with other recent studies putting that figure at an even higher level.
We need two things to happen. The first is to develop a real sense of urgency about the global economic and social impacts which have now become all but inevitable, and to ensure that we have co-ordinated policy responses to avoid a preventable humanitarian crisis. The second is to have a more meaningful, thoughtful and mature debate about whether we have responded proportionately to Covid-19. This is not, whatever a small number of opportunistic politicians and journalists may try to make of it, a question of seeking blame. Most of us simply want to learn from experience and build upon our collective knowledge base.
Until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus, or the virus itself changes to be less pathogenic, this disease will continue to spread through the global population. National responses are not sufficient in a world which is, as we have seen, hugely interdependent in both health and economic terms. World leaders need to act with collective responsibility and co-ordination in a way that has so far been sadly lacking.