Five million deaths from Covid-19 puts 'new normal' a long way off

Despite recent advances in medical treatment, the virus continues to be one of the deadliest threats since the Second World War

For a lucky few, a new normal after Covid-19 is in sight. At home, Expo 2020 has started welcoming crowds safely. Since the beginning of August, cases in the UAE have continued to drop. Abroad, even some of the most cautious of countries are gaining confidence. Australia, which has had arguably the world's strictest Covid-19 response, is now set to reopen its international border by December, or whenever national vaccination rates hit 80 per cent.

And scientists just recently cracked a major puzzle in the medical fightback against the virus, when American pharmaceutical company Merck announced it had developed an experimental antiviral pill that could halve the chance of dying from the virus, and crucially for strained healthcare systems around the world, the chance that infected patients go to hospital. The world now has a new medicine, one of only very few that fights the virus in its early stages. Most existing drugs are only administered once a patient is in hospital.

For parts of the developed world, there are reasons to hope that a new normal has arrived. This is not the case globally. According to figures gathered by Reuters, global deaths from the virus reached five million on Friday. To put into perspective the vast scale of this catastrophe, that is just under the global number of people who die from strokes yearly. It is, therefore, offensive and inaccurate to suggest the world in its entirety has arrived at a new normal. Last week, the University of Oxford published a report that claimed life expectancy last year dropped by the greatest amount since the Second World War. This fall did not just affect the developing world; for American men, for example, the rate dropped by more than two years relative to the previous year.

While useful to a certain extent, average life expectancy is an imperfect measurement of society's health, often failing to take into account cumulative, year-on-year factors and give a detailed picture about the many unique aspects that affect the health of people in particular countries. But in this instance, with a drop so great not seen since a conflict that killed 75 million people more than 75 years ago, we can be sure that Covid-19 has been one of the deadliest things to happen in modern history.

Sun Tzu, a master strategist, Chinese general and philosopher, wrote that "know the enemy and know yourself in a hundred battles you will never be in peril". The world must remember that the enemy is still the coronavirus, ever-changing through new variants. Knowing ourselves is to acknowledge that the means to fight the virus are still unequally distributed. Only 2.3 per cent of people in low-income countries have received at least one vaccine dose. And even most developed countries are going to struggle to buy limited quantities of Merck's revolutionary new pill in the short term. We might be winning individual battles, but the war against Covid-19 is far from over.

Published: October 4th 2021, 3:00 AM