As restrictions are lifted around the world, the sense of urgency surrounding the novel coronavirus pandemic has weakened. Hundreds of millions of students have returned to school; restaurants, bars and other businesses are slowly reopening in many countries. In parts of Europe, vaccine researchers worry that they will not have enough sick people for testing.
But this historic pandemic is not ending. It is surging. There were 136,000 new infections reported on Sunday, the highest single-day increase since the start of the pandemic. There are more than 7 million confirmed cases so far. The number of deaths is nearing half a million, with little sign of tapering off, and global health experts are continuing to sound the alarm.
“By no means is this over,” Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s executive director, said Wednesday. “If we look at the numbers over the last number of weeks, this pandemic is still evolving. It is still growing in many parts of the world.”
Latin America has emerged as a hot spot, currently accounting for almost half of global deaths by the Financial Times’ tally. The problem is particularly acute in Brazil, where the central government has maintained a hands-off attitude to the outbreak even as cases surged to almost 750,000, second only to the United States, but it has also hit countries, such as Peru, that took early steps against the virus.
Cases have surged in South Asia. WHO officials urged Pakistan to lock down after officials declared a record number of new cases in the past 24 hours. India is facing a new wave of infection; a top official in Delhi on Wednesday said that cases were expected to soar above 500,000 by the end of next month. Indonesia had its biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases for a second consecutive day on Wednesday, with 1,241 new infections.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, there are now more than 200,000 cases: There is widespread speculation that Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi’s president, who died on Tuesday, was the first world leader to die of COVID-19, though Burundian officials have said the cause of death was cardiac arrest.
The scale of the coronavirus has made it hard to take in. “In the period of four months, it has devastated the world,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Tuesday. “And it isn’t over yet.”
Some nations that were devastated early in the pandemic look to be losing ground in their recovery. In Iran and the United States, two countries divided by geopolitical enmity, experts are united by fresh fears of a second wave; new cases in Iran have surged to record highs weeks after the country eased its lockdown.
Some Iranian officials have blamed increased testing, which in itself raises questions about the first outbreak’s extent. “We don’t know if it will be a second wave, a second peak or a continuing first wave in some countries,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told CNBC.
U.S. states are seeing an increasing number of patients since Memorial Day weekend, when many people socialized in groups in parts of the country, while there are new concerns that the anti-racism protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis could add to a nationwide surge.
In the United States and elsewhere, the protests about injustice are partly fueled by the racial disparities seen in the outbreak. Protesters have attempted to maintain social distance and use masks and hand sanitizer — but that has not always proved possible.
Public health experts have expressed understanding about the protests. “It doesn’t help to say police violence doesn’t matter,” Gregg Gonsalves, a professor of epidemiology at Yale, told New York Magazine. “The health disparities that have killed tens of thousands of people over a half a century don’t matter. We are saying we understand it matters; they’re public-health issues too.”
But almost all experts acknowledge that mass protests are a risk — just as the reopening of the economy seen in many nations around the world, including the United States, carries risks. “The facts suggest that the U.S. is not going to beat the coronavirus,” the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer write. “Collectively, we slowly seem to be giving up.”
That demoralized attitude is reflected at the top of American politics: It has been more than a month since the Trump administration held a daily coronavirus task force briefing.
What will it look like to finally beat the virus? We can see some glimpses of it, if we look hard enough: New Zealand declared itself coronavirus-free this week; Taiwan is close to that milestone too. Some smaller nations, like the Pacific island of Samoa, have avoided getting a single confirmed case.
But until the pandemic is pushed back globally, these victories are fragile. We’ve seen this year how easily the virus can travel to a country and, once inside, spread furiously. Even for countries without the virus, the economic pain is still there.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development on Wednesday predicted that there would probably be a drop of 6 percent in global economic productivity this year, among the worst declines in a century. If there is a second wave, the drop would be worse — 7.6 percent — the organization said, with unemployment at 10 percent in developed countries in 2020 and little improvement next year.
Even in newly reopened New Zealand, that impact is evident. Officials in Auckland said this week that foot traffic and spending in the central business district were only 40 percent of what they had been before the virus. “When you’ve normally got an inner-city workforce in excess of 138,000 people, coupled with international tourists, that’s a major change in customers,” one told the New Zealand Herald.
There are some reasons to be hopeful. A study by Britain’s Cambridge and Greenwich Universities released Wednesday suggested that widespread mask wearing could help prevent a second wave as damaging as the first. Vaccine trials are beginning and many hope that the ambitious, accelerated development timetables will produce results as soon as the end of the year.
But there is still much we don’t know and little reason to feel triumphant right now. “This microscopic virus has humbled all of us,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.