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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 14-11-2020 08:56

The coronavirus remains far from beaten

Will life ever return to “normal”? After a fashion, it probably will, but the after-effects of the great pandemic which took the world by surprise and has yet to be mastered will be felt for many years to come.

Unlike their counterparts in many other countries, opposition politicians in Argentina have been reluctant to tell the world that had they been in power they could have handled the coronavirus pandemic far better than the local government and would thereby have saved tens of thousands of lives. This was certainly not the case in the United States, where while campaigning Joe Biden made out that, unlike Donald Trump, he knew exactly what had to be done to put an end to the coronavirus pandemic because he was a strong believer in Science.

That may have been nonsense, but it worked well enough. In times like these, people want certainty and Trump, who is wilfully erratic and prone to clutch at straws, failed to provide anything approaching it. Could a different president have done much better? Probably not; as commentators are belatedly reminding us, whoever is in the White House cannot order touchy state governors to do what he thinks is necessary and if he tries he is liable to be accused of behaving like a dictator. So unless the daily death toll in the United States is far past its peak by January 20 and the longed-for vaccine has finally arrived and is made widely available, Biden and his “task force” are liable to find that the coronavirus is a far tougher and more slippery enemy than they assumed when they were berating Trump for failing to deal with it in an appropriately draconian manner by making everyone wear masks and keep their door slammed shut.

If human beings were less gregarious creatures, stopping the virus would be fairly easy. “The science” assures us that if people keep at least six feet away from one another it will be unable to spread, which is why governments the world over are trying to force everybody to avoid brushing up against their fellow human beings or, if so inclined, hugging them or smothering them with kisses as used to be fairly frequent in some countries, among them Argentina.

However, since civilisation itself, and the economic activities that sustain our version of it, depend largely on people coming into close contact with one another, efforts to ensure social distancing have a big downside. So too, for that matter, have discriminatory measures which are designed to protect those who are regarded as most vulnerable while letting the rest go about their business. Strange as it may seem, many elderly men and women do not take kindly to the prospect of being obliged to spend the rest of their days in solitary confinement; though most are very careful these days when it comes to socialising, they would rather run the risk of getting infected by the virus than remain cooped up for years. Equally averse to going into permanent isolation are the huge number of people in wealthy countries who are clinically obese or suffer from ailments which, not that many years ago, would have shortened their stay on planet Earth. Ironically, it is thanks almost entirely to the successes of modern medicine that Covid-19 is proving so deadly; by increasing the average life span by several years, it has supplied it with a far larger number of potential victims than it would have found a century earlier.

Days before the prolonged US electoral process formally ended, Trump was laughed at for saying an effective vaccine was about to make an appearance and would turn out to be a game-changer. To his chagrin, the announcement regarding the one the Pfizer drug company says is now almost ready and works extremely well was made just after most of the votes had been counted, a delay he naturally found suspicious. In any case, even if Pfizer’s product is every bit as good as early reports say it is, it will be very expensive and must be stored and transported in containers kept at minus 80 degrees Celsius, a challenge which most US hospitals and clinics, let alone those in poorer countries, will be unable to meet for some time to come. Until these difficulties are overcome, most hopes will remain pinned on the vaccines which are being developed in Russia, the United Kingdom and, perhaps, China, as well as some other US companies.

They will be much needed. In the northern hemisphere, the pandemic is currently enjoying what is described as a “second wave” which many fear could be even nastier than the first which nearly overwhelmed hospitals in Italy, Spain, France and Belgium, as cold weather drives almost everyone indoors where the virus feels very much at home.

Here in the south, warmer days have already arrived, but the sunshine has yet to make much of an impact by making it easier for the many people who live in cramped quarters to go out and get some exercise. For understandable reasons, most men and women want to go back to what was seen as normal before the coronavirus broke through the defences hastily improvised by Alberto Fernández’s government and, after going on a rampage first in the nation’s capital and then in the neighbouring urban sprawl which surrounds it plus a few provincial hotspots, reached the rest of the country. As things stand, Argentina is one of the hardest hit countries in the world, though by the time it is all over several European ones could end up with a higher per-capita death toll.

Will life ever return to “normal”? After a fashion, it probably will, but the after-effects of the great pandemic which took the world by surprise and has yet to be mastered will be felt for many years to come. Even if a cheap and universally available vaccine does allow mass tourism to resume, and surviving restaurants, bars and theatres to reopen, it will be a long time before such establishments manage to recover from the sledgehammer blows they received in 2020. And, as sociologists are warning us, here and in most other countries, the many millions of schoolchildren have been left to their own devices for the best part of a year will find it even harder than it was before to make their way in a world in which educational achievements are already at a premium.

Some politicians understand this very well, which is why in Europe they insist that schools should reopen and stay that way come what may, but here far too many, supported by the teachers’ unions, take a very different view. They would like schools to remain shut for the foreseeable future even if it does mean sacrificing the prospects of a generation of youngsters who, deprived of a decent education, will have little to look forward to but a life of extreme poverty. 

 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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