Has the world as we know it changed inexorably because of a virus that was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019? This is the big question many people are grappling with as the Coronavirus epidemic sweeps through the world, with more than 181,000 people testing positive for the virus around the world, and a global death toll of over 7,100 as of this week.
There are several ways the virus has impacted the world so far, and may, depending on how long it takes to tame or eliminate it, possibly change the world as we know it:
One, a big question mark around the virus is whether it is an epidemic precisely foretold. For instance, as the epidemic took the world by storm some people drew attention to a passage from a book by an American author and self-acclaimed psychic Sylvia Brown. The book, entitled, ‘End of Days’ and published in 2008 has this passage which went viral:
“In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
Another American author Dean Koontz was also said to have predicted the outbreak of the virus, with posts featuring the cover of his 1981 novel, ‘Eyes of Darkness’ and a passage where Koontz allegedly predicted the virus having almost 40000 shares and 2000 re-tweets on some platforms. The highlighted text from Koontz novel reads: “They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400’ because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside of the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research centre”.
Some versions of the Koontz novel include an additional page that mentions the year 2020 and the outbreak of a “severe pneumonia-like illness”. While some have dismissed these books’ apparent reference to Coronavirus as mere coincidences, for others, the two books heightened interest in the conspiracy theories that developed around the ‘true’ origin of the virus. What is certain however is that both books are bound to be rediscovered, with their publishers smiling to the banks.
Two, related to the issue of whether it was an epidemic foretold is also the question of when it is likely to end. While President Trump suggested it could take up to July/August for things to “come to normal” in the USA, some are suggesting that things could start ‘normalizing’ in the country from May. Those who argue from this perspective take their cue from China. They argue that after the first cases in the country in December 2019, by late January much of the country was in lock down with an all-out war declared against the virus throughout February: schools and stores were closed and everyone basically stayed inside. However by early March, after about two months of aggressive containment measures, life started to slowly return to ‘normal’ in the country. It is important to underline that ‘normal’ here does not mean the eradication of the virus or the development of a vaccine – which experts say could be as far away as 12- 18 months. It is also important to mention that discussions of how long the virus will take to be contained do not address the question of how it will behave in the long term – it might for instance be seasonal and dependent on a country’s containment measures.
Three, another important question is how the virus has impacted on the world so far? Apart from the death tolls and the economic impact of lockdown in the affected countries, virtually every sector of national life has felt the impact across the world. The tourism industry has for instance been one of the hardest hit, including the cruise industry, with ships blocked by many countries such as Madagascar, Senegal, Seychelles and Mauritius.
As the Coronavirus spreads and measures to contain it leads to panic behaviour in several countries, stock prices across the world have been in free fall. While it is true that the performance of the financial markets is not necessarily an accurate indicator of the overall performance or health of the real economy, the plummeting of share prices often affects investor and consumer confidence with a spill-over effect that leaves a long lasting damage to the economy.
Another sector that has been particularly affected by COVID-19 is air travel where the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted the virus could cost airlines $113bn in lost revenue as fewer people travel and many airlines face bankruptcies. In fact on March 16 2020, the British Airways said it would cut flying capacity by at least 75 per cent in April and May. Other UK airlines including Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet also announced drastic cuts.
The tourism industry is also severely hit. The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in fact predicted that Japan could lose $1.29 billion of tourism revenue in the first quarter of this year due to the drop in Chinese travellers, while Thailand could lose $1.15 billion during the same period.
Oil prices have also been battered by the virus, with dire consequences for countries that are dependent on oil revenue such as Nigeria. With oil price hovering around $30 per barrel, Nigeria’s 2020 budget which was based on projected oil price of $57 per barrel, simply has to be reviewed.
In China, the country’s factory output had the sharpest plunge in three decades in January-February 2020. As China, which is the world’s second largest economy and a manufacturing hub imposed travel restrictions on millions of its people – (with some European countries like Italy, France and Spain following suit a few weeks after) , unemployment rate in China rose to 6.2 per cent (from 5.2 per cent in December 2019) – the highest since they began publishing official records. In fact following the virus UNCTAD, the UN trade agency, warned of a slowdown in global growth to under two per cent this year – effectively wiping $1trillion off the value of the world economy. Virtually all sectors of national life – from restaurants to sporting events have been affected as the ripple effect is felt across the increasingly globalized world.
In Africa, at least 13 African countries have closed or are preparing to shut down their school systems all the way up to university level – leading to uncertainties. This includes Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia, Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast. To add to this measure, Kenya has encouraged working from home, which has seen thousands streaming from the capital to their rural houses. With weak health and general infrastructure, many are praying that the assumption that the virus cannot thrive in hot climates like ours will provide relative shield before a vaccine is found.
Four, what will be the lasting ‘legacy’ of the Coronavirus – long after it has been contained or a vaccine developed? Social distancing (also known as physical distancing) is likely to remain with us. Elbow or even foot-touching may replace handshake or warm embrace as the dominant modes of exchanging greetings with colleagues and acquaintances. Again while the virus may not lead to a rapid decline in the perception of the nuclear powers, that they all felt relatively powerless before a ‘common virus’ demystifies the effectiveness of their military capabilities before smaller countries. In fact a new fear may be the possibility of the Corona virus triggering a new arms race on biological weapons (and antidote to such), including concerns about terrorists and insurgents developing the capability to culture such a dangerous virus.
COVID_19 may also accelerate the development or mainstreaming of new business models such as working from home – and the need to diversify global supply hubs for many products. This is where Africa may position itself to benefit from the fallout of the Coronavirus.