The post-COVID world this week: Delta disaster, Olympic positives, and the world’s emerging indirect health crisis

The future is here: A guide to the post-COVID world 06/25/2021

Welcome to your guide to where the world is headed during the pandemic era and beyond, from Andrew Marshall. Each week, we’ll bring you the latest and most significant expert insights and international news about how coronavirus is reshaping international affairs. To stay updated each week, sign up to the newsletter here.

Let’s take a spin around the globe, in seven minutes or less.

In top stories this week:

  • The Delta variant gets scarier.
  • Positive tests hit the Olympics a month early.
  • But first…

The big story

This week’s key theme: COVID’s massive indirect blow to the world’s health.

Not to be a downer, but: You are probably about to get a cold. Or your kid is, if you have one. And if your kid gets a cold, so will you.

This (familiar) logic has been largely suspended for the past year-and-a-half, as we dealt with COVID-19 lockdowns. Now it’s returning. My colleague Alex’s son had a cold, and then a week later, so did he.

It turns out that Alex is a trendsetter (we always knew it). “As more people venture out of their bubble and take off their masks, some are catching what they call ‘the reemergence cold,’” says CBS New York, as the health effects of COVID beyond the pandemic itself start to come into focus.

“It’s the first time since April 2020 where we’re starting to see other things circulating,” Trevor Bedford, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, tells STAT news. Some of these maladies are short-term irritations like a cold; some are more serious, like Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)—which can be dangerous to children.

“These common viruses are showing up at a distinctly uncommon time of year—and sometimes with uncommon virulence among children whose immune systems did not begin building up familiarity with them while the pandemic kept people isolated at home,” says the Washington Post.

Some of the collateral effects were positive. Seasonal flu killed an estimated 4,000 to 22,000 people annually in the UK—until it pretty much vanished last year, reports the Guardian. There isevidence that incidence of some other infectious diseases fell, though what really fell was the number of visits people made to the doctor and the diagnoses those doctors might have made.

“There were substantial reductions in primary care contacts for acute physical and mental conditions with restrictions, with limited recovery by July 2020,” according to a study in the Lancet Digital Health medical journal. “It is likely that much of the deficit in care represents unmet need, with implications for subsequent morbidity and premature mortality.” Those diseases still happened but didn’t get spotted, and some will kill people.

This goes well beyond the direct effects of COVID. Factors that will worsen the effects of heart disease, for example, include “lifestyle changes, reduction in physical exercise, home working, disrupted education for pupils, reduced social interactions, more perilous mental health, and socioeconomic hardship,” says one study in the European Heart Journal.

Plus, vaccination for non-COVID diseases fell dramatically because of the pandemic. “Early reports during the COVID-19 pandemic documented a marked decline in pediatric vaccine ordering and administration, placing U.S. children and adolescents at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

The pandemic has been a big backward step for health—especially in the US. “The U.S. has experienced a massive decline in life expectancy in 2020 on a scale that hasn’t [been] seen since World War II,” Dr. Steven Woolf of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, tells USA Today in discussing a new study in the BMJ, a journal by the British Medical Association. “That’s pretty stunning and it was not experienced on that scale by other countries.”

What is worse is that those positive and negative effects are not equally distributed. “Individuals with lower resources and from more deprived communities are likely to be more negatively affected… while those with more resources may be more likely to experience the benefits,” concludes a study from the International Journal for Equity in Health.

That is especially the case in poorer countries. In Africa and Asia, “the stark truth is that we will see more incremental deaths from HIV, TB and malaria in 2021 as a consequence of the disruption caused by COVID-19 in 2020,” says Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, which manages the purchase of drugs for these diseases.

And it’s also true in the US. “We found large differences in the reductions in life expectancy during the covid-19 pandemic based on race and ethnicity. Decreases in life expectancy among Black and Hispanic men and women were about two to three times greater than in White people, and far larger than those in peer countries,” says the BMJ study.

Just as the future is already with us in small ways—glimpses of innovations yet to come—so the past lives on with us in visible and invisible ways. Missed vaccinations, lost immunity, the exercise you didn’t do—all of those will linger as the world recovers and we forget we ever wore a mask to the supermarket. Summer colds are the least of it, but they’re a reminder.

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The world in brief

Insights from across the planet, in ten bullets or fewer

  • The Biden administration will probably miss its vaccination goal. The president had said he hoped to provide at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose to 70 percent of adults by July Fourth, but the rate of vaccination has slowed.
  • The Delta variant poses an increasing threat. “The U.S. government is stepping up efforts to get younger Americans vaccinated for COVID-19 as concerns grow about the spread of a new variant that threatens to set the country back in the months ahead,” says NBC. It represents more than one-fifth of coronavirus infections in the US in the past two weeks. And a new version—Delta Plus— sounds like a premium airline status but actually “may be more transmissible and resistant to COVID-19 treatments,” says NPR
  • Chinese-made vaccines may not work so well. “Examples from several countries suggest that the Chinese vaccines may not be very effective at preventing the spread of the virus, particularly the new variants,” the New York Times reports. “The experiences of those countries lay bare a harsh reality facing a post-pandemic world: The degree of recovery may depend on which vaccines governments give to their people.”
  • The COVID surge in Africa continues unabated. “African health officials are urgently appealing for vaccines to combat a third wave of COVID-19 surging across the continent,” reports Voice of America. “WHO regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti says cases have been increasing over the past four weeks. She says new cases in the past week have risen by nearly 30% across the continent and deaths have increased by 15%.” Meanwhile, Uganda is running out of oxygen, according to NPR
  • The Olympics gets its first positive cases. Two members of the Ugandan team have been put in isolation after their arrival in Japan, with the games still a month away. “The Tokyo Olympics, already delayed by the pandemic, are not looking like much fun: Not for athletes. Not for fans. And not for the Japanese public,” the Associated Press writes. The games are pressing ahead despite the threat.
  • COVID has left societies more divided. study from the Pew Research Center of seventeen advanced economies shows that “about six-in-ten report that national divisions have worsened since the outbreak began.” There is a stark division over how far restrictions should go. About 40 percent believe the level of restrictions on public activity has been about right. “A nearly equal share believes thereshould have been more restrictions to contain the virus. A minority in most publics think there should have been fewer restrictions.”
  • State and county fairs are coming back. Nothing could be more American than these celebrations of everything rural and local. Last year, most were canceled, but they are all coming back in 2021. “The good news now is that most of Vermont’s fairs are gearing up for a big return in just a few weeks,” reports The New York State Fair is returning at 100 percent capacity, says North Country Public Radio. The Chicago Tribune celebrates that “one of the big draws, the butter cow, will be celebrating its 100th anniversary at the Illinois State Fair this summer,” while the Monmouth Fair in Maine will host pig scrambles. And if you don’t know what butter cows and pig scrambles are, it’s time to leave your house and find out. AP News has all the latest developments here

The inside scoop

Insights from the Atlantic Council

Andrew Marshall is the Vice President of Communications for the Atlantic Council. He leads the Council’s media, digital, and editorial efforts, and coordinates the way the Council talks with its key communities.