COVID-19: Facing the Pandemic of the 21st Century

COVID-19: Facing the Pandemic of the 21st Century

The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is one of the most impactful crises that shook global economies, restricted social activities, emptied public spaces, infected 182 million people, and has taken more than 3.94 million lives from 213 countries (as of July 2021) since its outbreak in December of 2019.

A Look Back on Pandemics

History tells us that the rampant spread of deadly diseases is not new. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause such diseases have taken more lives than wars or natural disasters. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a Pandemic – “the global spread of a new disease”. Here’s a list of pandemics recorded throughout history.

Note: Many of the death toll numbers listed above are best estimates based on available research. Some, such as the Plague of Justinian and Swine Flu, are subject to debate based on new evidence.

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Despite the persistence of pandemics throughout history, a consistent trend is the gradual reduction of the death rate. Improvements in healthcare and a better understanding of the factors in pandemic incubation were influential in mitigating more damaging impacts.

“Improvements in healthcare and a better understanding of the factors in pandemic incubation were influential in mitigating more damaging impacts.”

COVID-19 vis-à-vis the Spanish Flu of 1918

The Spanish Flu of 1918 is considered one of the deadliest pandemics in history. The Flu, caused by an A(H1N1) virus, infected 500 million people worldwide and had resulted in 20-50 million (estimated) deaths from 1918 to 1919. It was first observed in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading globally.

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The nature of how the 1918 Spanish Flu spread and how it was tackled bears many similarities to today’s COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Nature of the disease – Both COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu target the lungs and are severely virulent.

COVID-19 patients suffer from symptoms such as fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Other symptoms include body aches, nasal congestions, a runny nose, sore throat, and diarrhea. Some may also be asymptomatic. According to the WHO, approximately one out of every six infected people becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty in breathing.

WHO assigned the original COVID-19 an R-naught or R0 of 2.4 to 2.6 (The R0 is a mathematical term used to measure how contagious and reproductive an infectious disease is. It shows the average number of people who will be infected from a contagious person). However, the most recently discovered Delta variant, is more contagious, with an R0 of 5 to 8. The Spanish Flu, on the other hand, had an R0 of 1.8. An outbreak with a reproductive number below 1 will gradually disappear. For comparison, the R0 for the common flu is 1.3 and for SARS it was 2.0.

  • Disease mitigation measures – At the time of the Spanish Flu, drugs or vaccines were non-existent. To mitigate the spread of the disease through physical distancing, citizens were ordered to wear masks while schools, theatres, businesses, and other public establishments were forced to close. This took a toll on the economy as scientists raced to find a cure. We can consider this a reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic we face today.

The Pandemic’s Global Economic Impact

In 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that the global economy shrunk by 4.4%, describing it as the worst decline experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. See the graph below for specific figures.

On the other hand, the IMF also predicted a global growth of 5.2% in 2021, driven by countries like the US and China. However, according to the World Bank, despite the predicted recovery, the level of global GDP in 2021 is still expected to be 3.2% below pre-pandemic projections. Also, the rebound is expected to be uneven across economies, with major economies registering strong growth amidst the struggle of developing countries. The speed of recovery will be heavily dependent on the economies’ progress in vaccinating their population, preventing/ minimizing COVID-19 resurgence, and whether the government has economic support measures in place.

… rebound is expected to be uneven across economies, with major economies registering strong growth amidst the struggle of developing countries.”

According to an economist, the impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt by emerging markets and developing economies for years, due to the significant decrease in investments, increased debt burdens, and greater financial vulnerabilities. It is predicted that in 2022, lower-income economies would be performing at 4.9% lower than pre-pandemic projections. Furthermore, the fragile and conflict-affected low-income economies could face a setback of at least a decade in per capita income gains (see graph below).

How Nations Responded to the Pandemic

The WHO continues to call on all countries to implement a comprehensive approach in limiting the pandemic’s damage by flattening the COVID-19 curve through preventive measures, mainly through Social Distancing. As indicated in the graph below, slowing the spread of the infection is nearly as important as stopping it.

The steep peak indicates a surge of coronavirus outbreak in the near term; the latter has a flatter slope, indicating a more gradual rate of infection over a longer period. It implies that fewer people are infected at this critical period, preventing a surge that would exhaust the healthcare system and ultimately lead to a lower death rate.

As the pandemic spread across the globe, governments took different approaches to curb the impact. A common theme in executing protective measures includes enhanced community quarantines, closure of nonessential businesses, social distancing, mass contact tracing, and testing, as well as providing financial and medical aid.

Below are samples of how governments dealt with the pandemic’s impacts during its onset:

A Call to Adapt

With the pandemic putting economies at a standstill, industries are continuously challenged to adjust to the new norm where countrywide lockdowns and social distancing played critical roles in addressing the mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As the pandemic restrictions (e.g. working from home, social distancing) dragged on, digital transformation accelerated across businesses, changing usual business operations. Cloud computing and video conferencing technology became indispensable to remote workers. Tech giants such as Google’s parent company – Alphabet Inc., and Microsoft Corporation, saw a rise in their stock price by about 15% and 28%, respectively. Slack Technologies, Inc., a digital communication platform for businesses also witnessed its stock price rising almost 32% during the same period. Similarly, Zoom Video Communications, Inc., one of the most widely-used video conferencing platforms, had its stock price skyrocket by 38%.

“Cloud computing and video conferencing technology became indispensable to remote workers.”


Despite the slowdown of economies, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about an E-commerce surge. The implementation of countrywide lockdowns drastically increased online shopping and demand for home delivery services.  Mercado Libre, an online marketplace in Latin America, reported selling twice as many items a day compared to the same period in the previous year. Similarly, the African E-commerce platform Jumia reported a 50% increment in transactions during the first six months of 2020.

While lockdowns initially disrupted daily business operations and regular supply chains, a survey conducted in India suggests that essential products are becoming more available via E-Commerce mobile applications during the pandemic.

The survey, conducted in April 2020, found that 57% of consumers could find essential goods via online delivery firms in the preceding 48 hours. The survey received more than 16,000 responses from consumers in over 180 districts in India.

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Along with the demand for E-Commerce services, there was a spike in virtual payments. According to DBS Bank, Singapore’s largest bank, the volume of cashless transactions almost doubled in the first three months of 2020 compared with the same period last year. With strict stay-at-home measures in force, people are compelled to reduce their reliance on cash and opt for contactless transactions.

“ the volume of cashless transactions almost doubled in the first three months of 2020.”


Initially, many countries closed their borders to travelers from less stable countries with a surging number of COVID-19 cases. Most forms of domestic and international travel plans were put on hold.  As a result, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reported that compared to 2019, where 4.5 billion passengers took flights, this fell to 1.8 billion in 2020. The overall loss of the industry amounted to roughly USD 370 billion.

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There are continued efforts between countries to establish air travel bubbles, special arrangements to open up travel borders without strict quarantine measures. For example, New Zealand and Australia established a quarantine-free arrangement. However, with the recent Delta variant outbreak in Sydney, the travel bubble was put on hold. Both countries are in talks to resume the arrangement when the situation in Australia stabilizes, possibly resuming only for parts of Australia.

Vaccination Roll-Outs

Despite social distancing measures, mask-wearing, and contact tracing, it was evident that these measures alone were not enough. With the Delta variant, countries with minimal daily COVID-19 cases were suddenly faced with a sharp increment (See articles on South Korea and Australia), causing some nations to go back into lockdown.

The next step forward had to be developing a COVID-19 vaccine and subsequently vaccinating the whole global population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccines stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies, developing disease immunity. Only by getting vaccinated would the risk of large outbreaks lower and pave the path for reopening economies.

“Only by getting vaccinated would the risk of large outbreaks lower and pave the path for reopening economies.”

Scientists around the globe raced to develop a vaccine. By December 2020, the Food Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine – the first COVID-19 vaccine.

To date, there are almost 20 vaccines that have received regulatory authorization globally, and many more remain in development or ongoing clinical trials. The need for ongoing development remains essential as current vaccines may not be suitable for every individual. E.g. Moderna should only be administered to those aged 18 and above, without a history of allergic reactions to ingredients in mRNA vaccines.

The vaccines that have been approved/ authorized in most regions are:

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Yet, despite the vaccine development, currently, 23.4% of the world’s population has received at least one dosage; of which the majority are from higher-income countries in North America and Europe. The top countries with the highest percentage of vaccinated residents were Iceland (75.9%), Canada (68%), United Kingdom (65.7%), Chile (65.5%), and Uruguay (64.7%).

Only 0.9% of low-income countries have received at least one dose, highlighting an accessibility issue. For example, less than 1% of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated.  Potentially, leaving poorer countries to deal with the pandemic alone could increase the risk of the virus mutating, further delaying global recovery.   Fortunately, there are programs like COVAX, backed by WHO and other multilateral bodies, that aim to address the inaccessibility by supplying 600 million doses of vaccine to Africa.

Pockets of Opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside-down as its impacts continue to challenge the morale of societies and economies every day. Yet within these uncertainties lie silver linings. Some areas of opportunities that economies and specific industries can look into for sustainability and resiliency include:

Entertainment & Content Streaming

With global habits changing to adapt to the new realities of the pandemic, self-isolation, and national quarantine measures, comes an increased online media consumption.

In China, the average weekly download of apps after implementing its countrywide isolation measures jumped to 40%. In the same month, weekly game downloads from Apple’s App Store were up 80% from 2019.

As millions of people go online for entertainment and more, total Internet hits have increased 20% worldwide while streaming saw an estimated increment of 12%. To manage the growing demand, Facebook, Amazon, and Youtube lowered video streaming quality in Europe to ease network lags. Additionally, Netflix saw a considerable increment of 15.8 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, bringing the total number of subscribers to 204 million.

E-Commerce & Home Delivery

Individuals and businesses embrace digital transformation and adopt innovative approaches in response to limitations posed by the pandemic by shortening supply chains through the use of technology. There is potential in the E-commerce sector, especially the online grocery scene. Many retailers and traditional small wet market grocers depend on online channels to sell their products, conduct online auctions, and carry out customer relation-building.

For example, online shopping among Singaporeans will continue its upward pace as government directives included avoiding unnecessary trips to shopping malls and requiring workers to stay at home. Retailers faced a challenge to meet surges in demand (See article here: Grocers, food delivery services ramp-up to cope with demand after  S’pore tightens Covid-19 curbs).

“Many technology companies are rolling out tools that provide remote support for lower fees or extended trial periods.”

Virtual Meeting Technology

The pandemic has pushed educators, business owners, conference organizers, healthcare providers, and companies to think outside the box and take advantage of technological innovations and digital platforms to better interact with one another. Many technology companies are rolling out tools that provide remote support for lower fees or extended trial periods:

  • Google allowed free access to normally charged advanced features for Hangouts Meet to all G Suite and G Suite Education customers for several months.
  • Microsoft offered a free six-month trial of its top tier of Microsoft Teams to enable schools, hospitals, and businesses in China to keep operating even with the restrictions of coronavirus.
  • Zoom lifted the 40-minute limit from its free Basic plan for China when coronavirus hit the country. Doctors in China from more than 1,000 hospitals used the service for online consultations.
  • LogMeIn offered healthcare providers, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations access to its video conferencing tools, including GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar.
  • Cisco is improving its Webex tool to properly support companies during the coronavirus in the 44 countries where it is available, including offering 24/7 assistance for businesses using the tool.


Telecommunications is vital as reliable connectivity became a critical commodity. Millions of users will be more connected and this will provide Telco networks with an overview of the dynamic behavior in network traffic management. Businesses and their telco partners would have a better grasp on how to address the challenges at hand.

Urban Farming & Local Production

According to the United Nations, more than two-thirds of the world’s population is forecasted to live in cities by 2050. Panic buying led to empty supermarket shelves as well as an uptick in the purchase of seeds, according to media reports.

Through growing or producing food in heavily populated towns or cities, more commonly known as Urban Farming, food shortage and malnutrition can be addressed and climate change impacts can be reduced.

In Jakarta, for example, lockdowns pushed those who live in the city to grow their fruits and vegetables within the comfort of their homes.

Healthcare Products

Increasing demand, panic buying, hoarding, and misuse are disrupting the global supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), putting health workers at risk of infection.

The WHO has called on industries and governments to increase manufacturing by 40% to meet the rising global demand. Ventilators are also short in supply as the worst-hit COVID-19 patients need immediate respiratory support for recovery. Manufacturing giants such as GE, Ford, Volkswagen, Mahindra, Tesla, and others stepped in and made joint efforts to partially switch product lines from car assembly to ventilators.

Easing into Normalcy

A year and a half into the pandemic, questions on when the crisis will end have arisen as vaccines continue to roll out and restrictions begin to ease. However, the spread of the virus remains a global concern in the years to come. The COVID-19 pandemic may shift into an endemic state where such a disease will constantly be present within a population but with infection rates maintained at a predictable rate (e.g., H1N1 Influenza A 2009).

“There are no clear indications as to when COVID-19 will shift into being an endemic globally.”

As it will not be fully eradicated, COVID-19 could circulate and mutate similarly with influenza, depending on varying climates according to different seasons within countries. There are no clear indications as to when COVID-19 will shift into being an endemic globally. According to an article by CNA, it might take three to four years.

Attaining pre-pandemic normalcy is highly dependent on each nation’s recovery road maps aimed at attaining herd immunity, global travel revival, economic and healthcare resiliency, societal compliance, governments fostering a high degree of trust, and a renewed sense of optimism looking ahead.