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Coronavirus: what is the social impact of global health emergencies?

The outbreak of the Coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in January 2020 has drawn renewed attention to the possible consequences of a pandemic – defined by the Worldbank as a large disease outbreak that affects several countries and poses major health, social and economic risks. Estimations by Ending Pandemics, an organization committed to detecting diseases at an early stage, notes that the next pandemic could exceed $60 billion in costs and kill up to 30 million individuals in 6 months. With 20,679 people infected by the Coronavirus at the time of writing, it is unclear where the virus began and at which speed it will spread. Speculations that snakes are at the origin of the virus have been challenged by researchers who doubt that the virus could have originated in animals other than birds or mammals. Ending Pandemics states, however, that nearly all infectious diseases with pandemic potential in humans are contracted from animals and that climate change, deforestation and increased travel have exacerbated the spread of diseases in recent times.

Apart from the medical aspect surrounding the Coronavirus, which is monitored by the World Health Organisation and analysed in daily reports, there have been speculations about the social impact of pandemics – and in particular whether these could accelerate pre-existing trends. We can think of border closures, nationalism, social isolation, remote work, face masks, decentralized medicine and distrust in government. Are we societally prepared for the consequences of a pandemic, such as countries increasingly closing their borders, people reducing their non-obligate contact with strangers, and growing digital nomadism? Some have claimed that while today relatively few jobs are feasible with remote work, a highly contagious and deadly disease will change everything – thus accelerating the long-predicted growth of robotics and teleoperation. Face masks may come into fashion just like every man used to wear a hat in the past.

The delicate balance between “anywheres” and “somewheres” – in simplified terms citizens who are either liberal and cosmopolitan or conservative and locally rooted – may tip in favour of the latter if pandemics have an impact on mechanisms that are at root of globalisation. Global supply chains are already being severely impacted by the Coronavirus. The consequences are also felt in China which, since the outbreak of the SARS virus seventeen years ago, has evolved into a principal element of the global economy – not only by producing components needed by factories all over the world but also as a consumer market.

In terms of citizenship, the Coronavirus raises questions about the protective obligations of states towards citizens and their families in situations that call for evacuations. There have been cases of mixed families where either parents or children were not allowed to depart despite also being a citizen of another country or having residency rights there. Certain countries’ non-recognition of dual citizenship comes into play here. Concretely, a three-year-old child with British citizenship and also in possession of a Chinese passport was not allowed to be evacuated with his parents from China following statements by the UK foreign office that China did not allow their citizens to depart.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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