“Rome outside is a very sad city. Night after night, the country sleeps desolate with the counting, still in the hundreds, of the dead, the scenes of terror are repeated in hospitals”. The commentary is part of a text by the Brazilian writer, Juliana Monteiro, who lives with her family in the Italian capital. She wrote and described the height of the first confinement experienced by Italy, a country that was the first epicenter of the covid-19 pandemic in Europe. “How sad so many Italians are burying their grandparents here, where they are so loved”, he found, still in the first months of 2020.
What the uniquely sensitive writer witnessed from her balcony was not just an impression of the pain that crossed a continent. More than a year after that first lockdown, data confirms what she felt: the pandemic has generated the biggest drop in life expectancy since World War II.
The survey, conducted by the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science, Oxford, analyzed mortality data in 29 countries, including Europe, USA and Chile. Of that total, 27 of them recorded a drop in life expectancy in 2020, on a scale that blurred objective progress for years on the issue of mortality.
What these numbers reveal, at bottom, is an enormous transformation in society. Never, in times of peace, have deaths reached such dimensions in rich economies. World hunger continues to kill more than covid-19. But, cynically, Europeans regarded this other pandemic as a distant problem and therefore not worthy of headlines. And not a solution.
What the pandemic has revealed is that nothing is inevitable, not even the future. If deaths reached unknown levels in these countries, something similar happened with the birth rate. The most optimistic believed that there would be an increase in births nine months after the first lockdown. But the numbers revealed just the opposite. A survey in France and Germany in the middle of last year indicated that 50% of couples would delay pregnancies.
In the US, falling numbers began to show up significantly from December 2020, nine months after the outbreak of the crisis. According to the CDC, the drop was 8% in births in the last month of last year, a trend maintained in January and February. In Italy, the drop was even greater, 21%, against 20% reduction in Spain for the month of December. France had December and January with the lowest birth rates in 20 years.
Not only was life suspended. Alliances were broken and the number of marriages that came to an end exploded. In the UK alone between July and October 2020, the law firm Stewarts recorded a 122% increase in meetings with individuals initiating consultations about possible divorces.
Now, with vaccines for a privileged class, plans can be made again. Both in Europe and in the USA, the first signs of life are also literally beginning to appear, with the return of couples in search of children. Or at least getting back to talking about it. The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany finds, for example, that the Google search for terms relating to pregnancy has jumped in recent weeks.
But for millions of poorer or grieving families, the future will have to be reinvented. Even in affluent Europe, the post-pandemic era also points out that no one will get away with it. In clinics and hospitals, the wave of covid-19 patients begins to be replaced by another: that of people with signs of depression, stress and psychiatric cases.
Existential questions also echo through power structures in the corridors of large capitals. How, despite all our technology and economic weight, did we allow so many dead to pile up? And what guarantees sovereignty: respirators or state-of-the-art military helicopters? To what extent can we celebrate an independence day and applaud a military parade while our health care system does not serve its own population?
The future will also require dealing with the $13 trillion loss left by the pandemic. But who to charge when the obscenity of inequality has been exposed?
In international organizations, the calculations confirm that the health crisis has shaken 30 years of progress in the human development index and that the planet will have, at the end of the year, an army of 318 million new miserable people.
Whoever had oxygen managed to avoid a social breakdown. The EU, for example, has earmarked €2.3 trillion in support measures to ensure the economies’ liquidity. This prevented a wave of bankruptcies and, in fact, the number of closed companies was the lowest since 1999. According to the EU, without this money, 25% of all companies in the bloc would have closed their doors by the end of 2020, after exhaust your boxes.
But this apparent stability may not last. In the market, the fear is that “zombie companies” – which in fact had no more activity – will start to close down. “Many insolvencies have been postponed, not prevented,” warned French credit insurance company Coface SA.
The austerity trend should also mark other sectors. Of the 1,600 clubs in France, 100 will never open their doors again, with thousands of jobs closed. And thousands of kisses that might never happen.
If there is one lesson that the pandemic leaves the world, it is that the model is exhausted, including morally. Or how to explain that, in the middle of a pandemic, billionaires make pornographic trips to space? There’s something rotten when rich countries start thinking about throwing away 100 million vaccines that will expire in December, while the poor don’t even know when they’ll get the first dose.
In an ethical catastrophe, the planet recovers its crudest colonial logic. This time with vaccines. Immunist factories in Africa spent months being forced to supply doses to rich countries, while the continent’s population begged for doses.
More than six months after the start of vaccination, rich economies had gotten 61 times more doses than poorer countries. This month, 300 million vaccines will be sitting in warehouses in Europe and the US, not knowing how they will be used.
Some will make their indignation explicit at this reality. Others will keep unpublishable secrets about the crisis that defined a generation. A group will still fight to prevent the rupture of a status quo that guarantees them fortunes and privileges.
But for everyone, the era of the infinite world is over for good. The future that many imagined existed proved unsustainable, insufficient and intolerable.
History will look at us without compassion. If change doesn’t occur, we’ll be in the books as the generation that didn’t listen – or chose to ignore – what may have been the last warning sign before a climate and social crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Our only gift is the reinvention of the future. Returning to the past is suicidal. On a hotter, more improbable, more hostile and more unequal planet, reimagining what society and coexistence will become is not an option. But an act of survival.
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