As Israel recorded zero daily COVID-19 deaths for the first time in 10 months last week, grave diggers in next-door Gaza reported rising workloads and hospitals said they were near to collapse.
A similar dynamic, on a cataclysmically larger scale, now unfolds around the world. In the United States and Britain, and later this year in much of mainland Europe, vaccines bring real hope of greater normality. In India, mass cremations burn, with the actual death toll far exceeding official numbers.
Summer 2021, it is now clear, is very much the “mid” not“post”-COVID world. The pandemic will shape not just the rest of 2021 but perhaps well beyond. Yet simultaneously the world is moving on, the post-pandemic dynamics of global geopolitics, economics and society already taking shape.
Individuals, institutions and nations are only starting to understand what that means. COVID-19's effects range from a Manhattan real estate slump to a collapse in worldwide travel to nations seeing vaccine manufacturing as a new global arms race.
Mixed with that – sometimes speeded by the pandemic, sometimes concealed – are shifts that were already taking place. They include a move to a more multipolar world, in which the United States must contend with a seismically stronger China, a Russia that views the world through a prism of confrontation, and multiple mid-size powers asserting their own way.
It is a world that is more divided and divisive yet also apathetic. The pandemic has highlighted and often worsened brutal global and domestic wealth gaps.
Perhaps because of the sheer scale of these problems and injustices, they can feel almost impossible to engage with. Even in the Indian press, truly detailed coverage of what is currently unfolding – let alone the causes – is limited in the extreme.
In almost every country, conventional political engagement appears in freefall, and the most animated are those who engage on the extremes. Black Lives Matter, climate change and anti-lockdown protests all bring attention to particular areas of dissent, but they produce an environment that drowns out many other matters.
Big issues often feel just too distant and polarised for many to engage with.
Across much of the developed and parts of the developing world, lockdowns have seen middle-class families hunker down to work from home and keep paying their mortgages, while immigrants and the young have lost opportunities and brought them their deliveries.
Even among those at the real coalface – medics dealing with pandemic surges, those delivering vital technology, logistics and services – the temptation to look away is massive. The pandemic has seen the often-positive development of many choosing simply to focus on themselves and those closest to them– but that may also come with costs.
For all the challenges of the pandemic, it may just reinforce the position of those in power. The Biden administration, having won its election, now looks set to be a much more transformative force that many of its supporters had expected, even as it is torn between multiple objectives from social justice to China and climate change.
In Russia, China and other autocratic states, powerful forces clearly already believe a new age of authoritarianism is underway. China’s Uighurs, Russia’s opposition and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaigners have all been victims of crackdowns, overshadowed by the outbreak.
The risk of 2016-style shocks like Trump and Brexit – or more seismic – has not gone away. Presidential elections in France next year could yet see Emmanuel Macron lose to the far right – while in a move unseen since the 1970s, 20 former French generals signed a letter calling for a coup d’état if Macron fails to tackle “Islamist hordes from the suburbs”.
A new French Revolution likely remains within the category of “fringe risk”, at least for now. If history is any guide, there is at least a possibility that the post-pandemic world instead brings greater opportunity, mobility and positive change – although COVID-19 has killed many fewer than the Black Death, and the dynamics may equally be very different.
At worst, the impact of the pandemic on unemployment might be dwarfed over the coming decade by the effects of automation, artificial intelligence and a wider revolution in technology. That already makes a small number of tech firms the arbiters of everything from managing online disinformation to the fate of space exploration and small retailers.
The post-pandemic world might be further away than we would like, but it is being shaped right now.
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party© Thomson Reuters 2021.