AS 2019 DREW to a close, the virus that was later to be called SARS-CoV-2 burst out of stealth mode. On December 26th Zhang Jixian, a doctor at the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, had noticed seven cases of unusual pneumonia, four of which were connected to the Huanan wet market in Wuhan. The authorities shut the market down on January 1st, but they were too late. Infections were already spreading in Wuhan and across China. Subsequent research has suggested that by then the virus had made its way unnoticed to Europe and America, too.
As 2020 draws to a close, the virus is rampant. There have been more than 70m confirmed cases and the number is growing by 4.3m a week. Perhaps 7m people have had to endure the lingering debilitation of “long covid” for more than three months. Worse still, more than 1.6m are known to have died and weekly fatalities now exceed 75,000, easily surpassing the record set in April.
In between, covid-19 rapidly came to dominate life utterly. Like a fluorescent injection in the bloodstream, as the virus surged around the world it has illuminated the workings of the global body politic. For every symptom of resilience—including food supply-chains, the financial system and, most of all, science—there have been symptoms of frailty.
One is that many societies cannot seem to grasp the nature of exponential growth. In the spring, as infections were doubling every five or six days, one country after another failed to anticipate how they soon would be swamped. Northern Italy has an advanced health-care system that all but collapsed under the burden of cases in March, but still other countries delayed. Britain went into lockdown two weeks after Italy. In that time infections—and the scale of the threat covid-19 posed—multiplied between four- and eightfold. Contrast that complacency with how Asian countries, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, drew on their experience of earlier coronaviruses and acted early and effectively.
Remarkably, after that failure, in the autumn it happened all over again. Despite having had months to prepare, governments failed to see the crisis coming for a second time. After the spring outbreak, Belgium readied itself for the next wave by doubling its intensive-care capacity. When the virus struck in November cases were growing so fast that this bought it a breathing space of just ten days or so.
Another sign of fragility is how readily the vast gaps in scientists’ understanding of covid-19 were filled by cranks and opportunists. The internet overflowed with claims that masks offer no protection, that the disease was caused by radiation from 5G communications towers and that covid-19 was no worse than the flu—and that if it did kill you it was all the fault of Bill Gates and his dastardly scheme to sell vaccines.
Populist politicians joined in. In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro called covid-19 “the sniffles”. In America Donald Trump talked down the epidemic even as he talked up unproven cures, such as hydroxychloroquine. It became fashionable on the right to lionise Sweden as a place that kept covid-19 at bay even as it respected individual liberty by forswearing lockdowns. Cases have mounted alarmingly. In a recent interview the country’s king declared that Sweden’s strategy has “failed”.
The populists got covid-19 wrong in another way, too: people seem to accept lockdowns. The pandemic has revealed the extent to which societies have a low tolerance for unfamiliar risks. When China responded to the virus by shutting down large parts of Hubei province on January 23rd, many commentators—including The Economist—said that freedom-loving voters in Western democracies would not tolerate such draconian measures. As it turned out, with a few exceptions including rural America, what they would not tolerate was government hesitancy.
Despite the odd protest against mask-mandates and lockdowns, harsh measures have been popular. Having isolated the country and kept fatalities to just 25, Jacinda Ardern was triumphantly re-elected in October with a majority—a rarity in New Zealand. Italy, which has lost almost 70,000 people to covid-19, lies at the other end of the death scale. Yet the quarantines ordered by Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, transformed him from a technocratic placeholder into a political force in his own right.
It may sound harsh, but this headlong embrace of lockdowns is a sign of fragility, too. The fight against the disease has come at the cost of mental illness, economic hardship, increased inequality, disruption to medical services and lapses in education that will set back a generation of schoolchildren. Perhaps because China set the standard for dramatic measures, governments have been unable to ask whether they have struck the best balance between sparing people from covid-19 and harming them with the policies they have imposed to counter it.
In the autumn a group of scientists attempted to raise this question with what they called the Great Barrington declaration. They proposed letting the infection spread among the young and the healthy so as to build “herd immunity”, even as the vulnerable shelter from the disease. The idea had its problems, but debate about whether they might be fixable never really took off.
Against these signs of fragility, however, it is important to weigh the great success of the pandemic: global science. It took 20 years to license a vaccine for polio. Today’s scientists have done the job in less than a year. Even that understates their achievement. When Dr Zhang raised the alarm covid-19 was a completely new disease. Today, its genome has been sequenced. Scientists understand how the virus enters the human cell and hijacks its protein-making machinery. They have developed treatment protocols and found therapies that save lives. They understand more about how it is transmitted and who is vulnerable.
Much remains to be discovered. And as 2020 drew to a close, a new variant of the virus emerged in Britain, that appeared to be up to 70% more contagious than earlier strains. It had already appeared in some other countries. But even as citizens have often lived their own national drama, as if the pandemic were really a series of national epidemics, scientists have mostly engaged in a planet-wide effort.
Thanks to their work, there is good reason to think that this time next year, as 2021 draws to a close, the pandemic will have abated. SARS-CoV-2 will still exist. It will still kill. Billions of people will still remain to be vaccinated against it. But its stranglehold on humanity will at last have loosened.
Correction (December 29th 2020): Sweden’s king did not make his comments about the failure of his country’s coronavirus strategy during a Christmas address but in an earlier interview.