The World This Week

Our editors give us a breakdown of this week’s biggest news stories

United Kingdom: Ryan Morrice 

It was revealed that Boris Johnson’s top advisor, Dominic Cummings, had been attending and participating in meetings of the scientific group advising the government on its coronavirus strategy. The group is supposed to give independent advice. The members of the group and minutes from its meetings have not been published; this is in strong contrast to the Scottish Government’s advisory group, which makes public its members and minutes.

Boris Johnson is set to return back to work after suffering from the coronavirus and being out of action for several weeks.

The Scottish Government and the Welsh Government announced plans on how they would exit their coronavirus lockdowns. The UK government is yet to reveal its exit strategy.

A website to let key workers book slots to be tested for coronavirus crashed shortly after its opening. Test slots also quickly ran out on its second day. The UK government has already been criticised for taking too long to ramp up testing.

Europe: Lucy Wright

Across Europe, leaders are preparing to ease lockdown restrictions, following a slowdown of the spread of the coronavirus. France, Spain, Italy and Belgium have all announced that they will unveil and outline their exit plans as they face the challenge of reopening their economies, which are facing the sharpest downturn in decades, while avoiding a dangerous resurgence of the virus. Children in Spain have been allowed on the streets for the first time in six weeks.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Russia and Turkey, leaders have been accused of taking advantage of a public health crisis to clamp down on dissent and bolster their power. This comes as several countries have declared a state of emergency, raising concerns about lasting impacts on civil liberties. Many countries across the globe have unveiled large-scale surveillance programs for contact tracing, leading to worries about their impact on privacy.

Africa: Camille Capelle

Pharmaceutical research has accelerated significantly as foundations and scientific research shift their efforts and resources to a new focus on co-infection, especially to include malaria-infected patients. Despite the difficult conditions of the crisis, the African continent is making significant progress in terms of drug-development, although variations in national regulations pose a key obstacle to the efficiency of development

A new swarm of locusts is plaguing large swathes of the continent, exacerbating the already difficult conditions for the agricultural sector. This second, much larger, wave of locusts are jeopardizing farming efforts while government funds are already committed to the COVID crisis. A new hunger crisis for many African countries would be disastrous at this time more than any, and the possibility for the spread of this pest poses a worrying threat to countries outside Africa as well. 

Tensions in OPEC are high as countries including Saudi Arabia won’t respect decisions to decrease oil production. The latest drop in global oil prices is proving increasingly problematic for African economies.

Meanwhile, South Africa is looking to reopen different sectors of its economy step by step, as it hopes to gradually lift lockdown measures.

Americas: Lucy Wright 

In the United States, as unemployment claims have reached 26 million people (around 15% of the population) many US states are feeling the pressure to resume trading. Three US states, Georgia, Oklahoma and Alaska, have allowed some shops to reopen

In Georgia, which has one of the fastest reopening timetables in the country, bowling alleys, spas, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlours and other personal care businesses will be allowed to resume operations. On Monday, dine-in restaurants and theatres will be allowed to re-open.

Customers visiting the newly reopened businesses in these states will be expected to continue adhering to social distancing measures. Yet some cities and areas within these states have decided to keep their lockdowns in place. Health experts have raised concerns that the steps to reopen the economy may be happening too soon, with fears that they could spark another wave of infections. 

With only 60 ventilators for 11 million people, and a very  limited group of doctors who know how to operate them, Haiti is perhaps the most vulnerable nation in the Americas to the Coronavirus. While the Haitian government has recently attempted to buy much-needed equipment, from ventilators to PPE, healthcare practitioners fear it is too little, too late.

Meanwhile, hundreds of primary schools in rural areas of Uruguay have reopened this week. Attendance will not be compulsory to allow parents to decide whether to send their children back into the classroom. Reports suggest that only a handful of children have returned to school. 

Asia: Max Dowden

This week, a dizzying array of negative economic reports were published across Asia, as the full weight of the economic fallout from the COVID crisis has begun to emerge. Japan’s service sector shrunk at a record pace through the month of April, and the South Korean economy suffered the largest first-quarter contraction since 2008. In Australia, the ‘Purchasing Manager’s Index’ (a common metric for tracking the manufacturing sector) dropped to an all-time-low. 

In Thailand, the all-important tourism sector has suffered a bludgeoning 76% drop since March of last year, due in large part to an almost 45% drop this February. The desperate Thai government has turned towards attempting to attract tourists from China, given the country’s early opening compared with many other popular tourist home-nations. 

Meanwhile, a glimmer of hope just to the East, as a report published by the Asian Development Bank has shown that Vietnam maintains the highest growth rate in Southeast Asia despite the COVID crisis, driven in large part thanks to a combination of buoying domestic demand and aggressive governmental fiscal stimulus.

Theory: Lucy Wright

In the search to find the most effective and efficient solutions to the coronavirus crisis, many have turned to country by country comparisons to determine what has worked and what hasn’t. This approach, however, may be problematic for a number of reasons.

The most sought after figure for many has been the death rates – an indication for the success or failure of a country’s response. It is important to bear in mind, though, that there will be inevitable differences in the form of measurements undertook to determine the death rate. For example, measuring the ratio of deaths to confirmed cases can make the death rate appear much higher in countries that mainly test people who are ill enough to be admitted to hospital, compared to the rates in a country which has had a wider testing programme. It is also important to bear in mind that most cases will never be counted, as only those with severe symptoms are likely to warrant the test.

From a political perspective, it is more difficult to have confidence in data which comes from countries with tightly controlled political systems. We may never know whether the data presented to us has been an accurate reflection of the reality in some regions of the world.

As well as the structural differences of health systems across the globe, the level of comorbidity – the number of other conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure – which people may already have when they get infected, is important to bear in mind when comparing the data. Other demographics that are important to consider include the average age of a population, the density, or where people live, as well as how easily different cultures adjust to social distancing.

What we do know, however, is that those countries that performed a lot of testing early on in the pandemic, and followed this testing up by tracing the contacts of anyone who was infected, seem to have been most successful in slowing the spread of the disease so far.

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