The COVID-19 seems to plunge the world further into a deep confusion. Messages are most of the time contradictory. They vary according to countries and actors, from “the epidemic is behind us”, “let us all go back to business as usual and work towards recovery” to worries of possible starting new pandemic wave.
This confusion is something that has characterised the COVID-19 pandemic since its start, as we highlighted as early as 5 February 2020 (see Helene Lavoix, “The New Coronavirus COVID-19 Mystery – Fact-Checking” and “The Coronavirus COVID-19 Epidemic Outbreak is Not Only about a New Virus“, The Red Team Analysis Society).
To hope being able to overcome confusion, and thus to act soundly and efficiently, it is necessary to look at reality. This is the objective of this article, to give simple evidence of the new current reality and of possible related emerging features of the changing international order.
Thus, first, we provide a snapshot of the reality of the global pandemic. Then we suggest that, to date, we can categorise countries according to three types of pandemic-related stage: the countries on the razor’s edge, those facing a declared rebound, and those still handling the initial outbreak. In the meantime, we highlight emerging traits of the novel COVID-19-infused international order.
The global pandemic situation
The first fact that we need to face and acknowledge is that the pandemic is not over. We are not in a post-COVID-19 world. This will not happen most probably for a while. We must really live with the pandemic as long as mass vaccination has not taken place, mass treatment is not available or miracle disappearance of the SARS-CoV-2 does not occur (see The COVID-19 Pandemic, Surviving and Reconstructing; COVID-19 Antiviral Treatments and Scenarios and The COVID-19, Immunity and Isolation Exit Strategy).
Indeed, on 11 June 2020, the world registered 138.400 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, the highest ever daily number of case, followed by a group of daily cases, considering week-ends, higher than for previous weeks (118.100, 134.200 and 134.000). Furthermore, that figure is highly probably underestimated.
We are about to reach 8 million cumulated confirmed cases worldwide.
In terms of potential for contagion, these are very sobering figure.
Health authorities took turn to remind the world of this fact.
On 8 June 2020, Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General had reminded the world that the pandemic was “‘far from over” (Stephanie Nebehay, Emma Farge, “WHO says pandemic ‘far from over’ as daily cases hit record high“, Reuters, 8 June 2020).
On 10 June, U.S. Dr Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and top advisor to the White House echoed this dire warning. On 12 June 2020 it was the turn of the EU Health Commissioner to stress the same message (John Lauerman and Riley Griffin, “Fauci Says Covid Pandemic His ‘Worst Nightmare,’ Far From Over”, Bloomberg, 10 June 2020; Reuters, “EU warns COVID-19 health crisis not over yet, urges vigilance“, 12 June 2020).
The global pandemic outlook is, however, covering various types of situation according to countries. Currently we can distinguish three broad categories.
On the razor’s edge
Some countries seem to be past the initial outbreak of the pandemic. The states belonging to this group are those that were hit first and chose to handle the pandemic according to what we could call the Sino-Korean-Imperial College model (for the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team’s model see, Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand, 16 March 2020). In other words, these countries decided to implement first all necessary measures, including total lockdown, to preserve the lives of their citizens. This also means they had the means to implement this model and their decisions were more or less timely enough to allow them to control the contagion.
Here is a selection of countries qualifying for this first group, ordered according to the maximum number of new daily cases. The selection is done according to daily new cases on 15 June 2020. It may change with time.
Group 1 COVID-19 – On the Razor’s Edge – Selection of Countries
2020 change in GDP : -8,9%
2020 change in GDP : -1,2%
2020 change in GDP : -11,3%
2020 change in GDP : -11,5%
2020 change in GDP : -6,7%
2020 change in GDP : -6,2%
2020 change in GDP : -11,4%
2020 change in GDP : -5%
2020 change in GDP : -6,6%
2020 change in GDP : -11,1%
2020 change in GDP : -2,6%
Number of new daily cases – 15 June 2020 (sources: COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU)) – GDP forecast: OECD, for Thailand: IMF
Even within this group, we have very varied situations. We can sort them according to two factors, which combination, then, influenced the scope and duration of the lockdown.
As a first factor, we have preparedness and initial means available to fight the pandemic, in terms of test and face masks notably. Countries range from South Korea and Germany on the one hand to less well prepared countries such as Spain, France, Italy or the UK.
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The second factor is the level of infections and deaths tolerated, ranging from near to zero tolerance with New Zealand, Australia, Thailand or Austria to a much higher acceptance of risk for many European countries such as Spain, Italy, France or the UK. The British government is however attacked considering notably the late decision to lock the country down and the high price to pay in terms of lives (e.g. Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, “Coronavirus: five reasons why the UK death toll is so high“, The Conversation, 10 June 2020).
A sub-factor, for the period past the first outbreak, is the tolerance for new cases of infections. On the one hand, South Korea and China, for example, accept hardly any new case, considering also the danger of virus mutation. For instance, Beijing went in “wartime” mode, reinstating level 2 measures because of a new cluster linked to the immense Xinfadi food market, leading to 79 cases identified by 14 June evening (e.g. “Beijing reports 36 more COVID-19 cases in new local market cluster“, CGTN, 15 June 2020). Previously, for 56 days, Beijing had reported zero new cases of locally transmitted infection (Ibid.). At the other side of the spectrum, France stresses “the worst of the epidemic is past” despite, for example 407 new daily cases (figures for 14 June 2020) and 193 clusters under investigation on 9 June 2020 (Reuters, “French Health Minister: Worst of Epidemic Behind Us, but Virus Not Dead“, 15 June 2020).
The countries in this first group now fight, whatever their policies, to keep the pandemic under control and lower the number of cases on the one hand, to re-start their economy on the other. Indeed, the economic toll, measured according to the pre-pandemic world has been huge. For example, according to the OECD 10 June 2020 forecast, in the best case G7 countries are expected to see a decrease of their GDP for 2020 between 6% for Japan and 11,5% for the UK. The slump forecast for all OECD countries are detailed in the chart below. China for its part is expected to see a decrease of its GDP of 2.6% (Ibid.).
The countries of this first group, according to the sanitary measures taken, and to what would ideally be necessary for these measures, as we detailed in our two articles on the second wave, are walking on the razor’s edge (see Dynamics of contagion and the COVID-19 Second Wave and The Hidden Origin of the COVID-19 and the Second Wave).
In other words, any severe faux pas, or more likely the accumulation of small errors could trigger a rebound of the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, South Korea, worried about the multiplication of clusters around Seoul, decided to “extend prevention and sanitation guidelines against the coronavirus until daily new infections drop to single digits” (Sangmi Cha, “South Korea to extend virus guidelines on prevention, sanitation“, Reuters, 12 June 2020). China, as seen with the 12 June Xinfadi market cluster in Beijing, also shows extreme vigilance and immediate extensive action (Ibid., Judy Hua, Cate Cadell, “Beijing district in ‘wartime emergency’ after virus cluster at major food market“, Reuters, 13 June 2020)
The situation is all the more difficult that many actors want to believe the COVID-19 pandemic is over, or to the least that the worst part of the epidemic is past, and that now is the time to focus on the economy. Even if many accept to stress that the world will never be as it was before, by and large these are mainly empty words, and most fight hard to go back to the pre-COVID-19 world.
New ideas appear, such as for example the green bubble, green lane, travel bubble or air bridge, which would allow traveling and exchanging between countries that have succeeded in controlling the pandemic (e.g. Tamara Thiessen, “Europe Travel: Tourists From Safe Covid-19 Countries Welcome First“, Forbes, 12 June 2020, “‘Green lanes’ to isolate trans-Tasman bubble” The Australian, 14 June 2020; Ned Temko, “Border-hopping without bubble-popping: A new COVID-19 strategy?” CSM, 19 May 2020, “What are air bridges and why is the Government considering them?“, The Telegraph, 8 June 2020, etc.).
This is a very new feature of the world that may make or break countries. Indeed, those who will not be able to control their epidemic situation will also be cast away. Positively for citizens, this may encourage political authorities to pay attention to health and safety, as is, anyway, their duty. This may also encourage powerful actors to lobby for a strict health policy rather than to put economy first while disregarding costs in terms of lives. Complex and tense situations, both domestically and internationally are nonetheless likely to evolve out of this new feature of the international world.
Facing a COVID-19 rebound
A smaller group of countries, which had gone more or less successfully through the first outbreak are experiencing or have experienced a rebound. Here, to date (15 June 2020) we may mention as cases Singapore, Iran, the Kingdom of Saoudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bahrain, Qatar. The location of Qatar in this group is tentative.
Group 2 COVID-19 Rebound – Selection of Countries
Pakistan, for example is paying a very high price for the decision of the Supreme Court to lift the lockdown, even though the country, as others was taken between the hammer and the anvil (Ayaz Gul, “Pakistan’s Top Court Ends Coronavirus Lockdown“, VA, 18 May 2020; Charlotte Greenfield and Umar Farooq, “After Pakistan’s lockdown gamble, COVID-19 cases surge“, Jakarta Post, 5 June 2020).
The cases of these countries highlight further how the countries of the first group are in a precarious position and how easily one may move from one group to the other.
Under first fire
Finally, some countries are still, to date (15 June 2020) in the first phase of the outbreak. They are at various stages of this “first wave”, and handling it more or less well. Here we find Russia, most of Latin and Central America, India, Indonesia, The Philippines, probably a large part of Africa, etc.
Group 3 COVID-19 – Under first fire – Selection of Countries
The U.S. is also part of this category. Indeed, if it was part of the first countries to experience the COVID-19, it is still grappling with the challenges of the epidemic 6 months later. The situation of each American state differs, and some are faring better than others and are at varying stages. Nonetheless, the epidemic appears to worsen, as new cases and new hospitalisations spike in many states (Lisa Shumaker, “Record spikes in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations sweep parts of U.S.“, Reuters, 14 June 2020). According to a Reuters tally, “Alabama reported a record number of new cases for the fourth day in a row on Sunday. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina had record numbers of new cases in the past three days… Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas and Utah all had a record number of patients enter the hospital on Saturday” (Ibid.).
The very disparity of the situation, and of the policies implemented for each state may also be seen as a rising fragility specific to the American federal system. Indeed, other federal systems, or regional ones did not face the difficulties the U.S. obviously face. Here the potential consequences are also extremely high in terms of international order. Indeed, as the U.S. is fighting to keep its position of superpower and as it perceives itself as the leading power in the world, with a quasi-divine mission (see our series Which U.S. Decline? The View from the U.S. National Intelligence Council), then being unable to handle the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a lack of power (in the idea of mach, might, capacity to do something) and failing in its mission. Internationally, it may only mean a loss of international influence as it is so far unable to offer a model to solve a problem.
True enough, the capabilities, notably in terms of economy, research and military might, for example, of the U.S. remain very important, but the COVID-19 pandemic is one more critical danger to the U.S. international status.
We are thus starting to see a possibly very different international order emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The fate of countries so far remains fluid and can be changing quickly. New ways to interact between countries that did not previously exist, grounded in safety and ability to control the COVID-19 emerge. Meanwhile, the position of the U.S. as superpower appears as increasingly precarious. These changes in the making will interact with the way countries handle the pandemic and thus, in turn, impact the pandemic itself. We are only at the beginning of changes.
Featured image: World Map of Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases, Jun 15, 2020, Our World in data