Vaccines, Bans, and Politics: World in Second Year of Pandemic
06:37 GMT 31.12.2021 (Updated: 07:05 GMT 31.12.2021)
WASHINGTON (Sputnik), Ekaterina Chukaeva - Having borne the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, the world appeared to be entering its second year well-armed with vaccines of all sorts. Yet, new COVID variants emerged one after another, and international tensions got in the way of mutual vaccine recognition and the global fight against the disease.
Despite worldwide mass-vaccination campaigns, coronavirus cases continued to rise throughout the year. As of late December, nearly 300 million cases have been confirmed worldwide, with over 5 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In November, the World Health Organisation's Regional Office for Europe expressed grave concern about a surge of COVID-19 on the continent. In Germany, the number of coronavirus-related deaths topped 100,000 in November, while France reported a sharp rise in virus incidence among minors ages 6-10, in a 148% spike over just one week in fall.
In December, the Pan American Health Organisation announced that coronavirus infections in the Americas had tripled in 2021 despite a vaccination rate of 56% in Latin America and the Caribbean. Asia was also setting records in terms of the number of cases, with Indonesia and Olympic Japan dealing with a spike over the summer. In December, Russia announced that in October 2021, mortality in the country had increased by 20.3% year-on-year, with the coronavirus almost entirely accounting for the spike.
The rise in cases in the outgoing year was mostly linked to the emergence of new viral mutations. While the Alpha and Beta strains appeared in 2020, the start of 2021 saw the emergence of Gamma in January and, ultimately, Delta in May. Delta and Delta Plus were of great concern due to being more transmissible. And in November a new variant, Omicron, was detected in South Africa.
The global consensus is that the world will keep facing more and more coronavirus variants.
"How many is impossible to tell because there are likely to be many more that are never detected. It is important to realise that the virus has also to be able to survive in the hostile environment of a mammalian body that has a terrifying immune response (if you are a virus). We have cells that produce chemicals that kill viruses and cells that can swallow viruses whole and digest them", Simon Reid, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland, Australia, told Sputnik.
All variants have different abilities to survive and replicate, Reid explained.
The Omicron strain
contains more mutations in the spike protein — 32 — than all previous variants, meaning that it could spread more easily and be more vaccine-resistant. The emergence of the new strain prompted governments to place restrictions on travellers from African countries, and major vaccine manufacturers launched efforts to update their coronavirus shots.
The WHO has theorised that the strain may have originated in an infected human who was receiving treatment over a long period, giving the virus ample time to mutate and adapt.
While the new variant appears to be more infectious, it does not cause more severe disease, so the overall impact may be limited, Jan Jones, professor of virology from the University of Reading, Britain, told Sputnik.
"It will not change the course of the pandemic but it does serve to remind everyone that the virus is still in circulation and that vaccination is a good idea", he explained.
The expert admitted that variants of COVID-19 will emerge continually, being a natural part of viruses' survival.
"But as time goes by, there is less likelihood the virus will get worse, as it will have already tried many of the variations possible. So while the virus will continue to evolve, the impact of each new variant long-term is likely to get less", Jones said.
In December 2020, the European Union, Russia, and the United States all embarked on vaccination campaigns, introducing shots for frontline medical and essential workers.
By the end of this year, national regulatory authorities had granted emergency-use authorisation to 25 COVID-19 vaccines, eight of which — Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Sinopharm BIBP, Moderna, Janssen, CoronaVac, Novavax, and Covaxin — have been given full approval. By December 2021, nearly 9 billion doses of COVID 19 vaccines had been administered worldwide.
While Russia's trailblazing Sputnik V
has been approved in 70 countries, the World Health Organisation has so far not given its approval.
In addition, the vaccine is still undergoing evaluation with the European Medicines Agency, as the European Commission's recognition of COVID-19 certificates issued in San Marino — where 90% of the population has been vaccinated with Sputnik V — does not amount to authorisation of the Russian shot.
The WHO and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) discussed the need to obtain extra data on the quality, safety, and effectiveness of Sputnik V in late November. The RDIF promised to present a plan for data submission so that the WHO could speed up the assessment. The latter has recently announced that it will be ready to conduct an on-site inspection of vaccine production sites in February 2022, if the requisite part of the documents is submitted by the end of December.
In the absence of WHO approval, those vaccinated with Sputnik V have to put up with travel restrictions. The US and Canada, for instance, only recognise vaccines approved by the WHO itself.
Throughout 2021, national governments wrestled with finding a balance between safety and freedom. Lockdowns were alternated with easing of restrictions, after which the authorities reinstated lockdowns, making this year a seesaw of COVID-19-related announcements with which one could hardly keep up.
The majority of countries introduced mandatory vaccination for certain categories of the population, including medical staff and military, as well as those employed in the service sector, food industry, and others. Nations imposed entry bans, rapid testing, QR codes for public places, and some barred the unvaccinated from visiting public places altogether.
Social media, which unsurprisingly became even more popular under lockdowns, has been seen as a haven for vaccine-hesitant people as well as those spreading misinformation. In September, Telegram shut down the popular Italian anti-vaccination channel, Basta Dittatura, which had over 40,000 subscribers. Twitter has repeatedly suspended the account of US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for sharing misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines.
In October, YouTube announced the removal of prominent channels
for contradicting officially-approved information on COVID-19 and vaccines. In particular, it axed channels belonging to American alternative medicine proponent Joseph Mercola, the Children's Health Defence fund (affiliated with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.), blogger Erin Elizabeth, and physician Sherri Tenpenny. The company also removed channels associated with doctor Rashid Bhuttar, and Ty and Charlene Bollinger.
While seen by some as positive, the crackdown
on such content reaffirmed a wider trend of social media giants shifting from the status of neutral observers to the role of judge, Erik Qualman, an author and social economics expert, told Sputnik in October.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg of a massive change that is coming around disinformation. While some may view it as good that YouTube and parent company Google are stepping in at this particular instance to help reduce disinformation (something Facebook has epically failed to do), there [are] massive implications beyond this when the social media companies are no longer neutral parties but are playing both judge and jury on what content we see", Qualman said.
Not all the measures introduced by governments in an effort to rein in the virus were met with approval by the public.
France saw perhaps the largest wave of discontent when, in August, sanitary passes became mandatory to visit cafes and restaurants, as well as for flights and trips on long-distance trains. Demonstrations against these measures frequently turned violent in Paris
, with protesters throwing bottles and firecrackers at police. Dozens were arrested as a result of intense rioting in Guadeloupe in November and December. Groups of people, many of whom were armed, looted and smashed shops in the region. As a result, France temporarily backed off mandatory vaccination for medical workers there.
Neighbouring Belgium was rocked by similar demonstrations
, with protesters hurling rocks at law enforcement, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Police estimated that tens of thousands of people attended the rallies following the announcement of strict measures in November.
In the Netherlands, one of the most violent rallies against COVID-19 restrictions took place in Rotterdam in November, with demonstrators launching fireworks and again throwing rocks at the police. Acting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the protests "pure violence" perpetrated by "idiots", adding that they had nothing to do with genuine demonstrations.
Germany experienced one of the largest anti-lockdown protests held by the COVID-sceptic movement Querdenken. August protests, which were held in spite of a ban by Berlin authorities, led to the arrest of over 600 people.
In Britain, people took to the streets both to protest the government's handling of the pandemic and demand the cancellation of COVID-19 vaccination passports.
Japan, the host of the 2020 Olympics, saw an array of protests against the international sporting event, as COVID-19 infections hit record highs in the summer. Yet the Summer Olympics, postponed by a year due to the pandemic, did take place in Tokyo from July-August. The event was held without spectators and with scrupulous restrictions in place.
Thousands of protesters repeatedly swarmed the streets of the Australian state of Victoria to challenge government-imposed measures and mandatory vaccination for construction workers. In November, the Solomon Islands, a tiny Pacific nation, appealed to Australia to send peacekeeping troops to quell an escalation of violence in the capital, Honiara, where anti-government demonstrators defied lockdown orders.
Brazilians gathered in major cities to demand the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro, a coronavirus vaccine sceptic, at least five times. Most of the banners and slogans chanted by the protesters concerned the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, whose number has surpassed 600,000; delays in acquiring vaccines, unemployment, hunger, and high gas prices.
US Probe Into COVID Origins
The origins of the virus continued to occupy the minds of global leaders in 2021. The World Health Organisation sent several fact-finding missions to Wuhan and released a full report in March, which concluded that a lab leak was "extremely unlikely". WHO experts concluded that the virus was transmitted to humans from animals that may have consumed bats.
Newly-elected US President Joe Biden did not brand the virus "Chinese"
as did his predecessor, Donald Trump. However, in May, he directed the US intelligence community to redouble efforts to investigate the matter. The request came after reports that three lab employees in Wuhan, China, fell ill in November 2019 with symptoms similar to COVID-19. The first case of coronavirus was reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, located in the central Chinese province of Hubei.
In October, US intelligence finally released a declassified report on the origins of COVID, concluding that the virus had not been developed as a biological weapon. It still accused Beijing of hindering the global investigation and resisting information-sharing.
Beijing dismissed the report
as politicised, false, and lacking any scientific basis.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology insists that it did not create the coronavirus and, therefore, that it did not escape from its laboratory.
"Until December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology had never studied and faced COVID-19. The Wuhan Institute of Virology has never synthesised, created COVID and never let it leak. Moreover, no employee or student of the institute had been infected with COVID-19 until that moment", the statement said.
Those Hit Hardest
While affluent nations are speeding up their vaccination campaigns, developing and low-income countries remain undersupplied with vaccine doses.
According to an October report from the People's Vaccine Alliance, which is comprised of over 70 organisations advocating for fair vaccine distribution, developing economies have received only 261 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, which make up 14% of the total number that wealthy countries promised to supply. Developing countries have encountered a flurry of unfulfilled promises by rich economies and pharmaceutical giants, the report said.
Through the WHO-led COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative, Western pharmaceutical companies have shipped only 12% of the vaccine doses allocated for the purpose, the alliance noted. As a result, a total of 1.3% of the population of low-income countries has been fully vaccinated, as of October.
Syria, for years ravaged by civil war, is one such vulnerable nation. The country is facing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, as less than 2% of the population has been vaccinated, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths said in October. The UN official pointed out that nearly 2 million people in northwest Syria live in refugee camps, which are often overcrowded and lack basic sanitation.
Humanitarian organisations also paint a bleak future for Afghanistan, where the Taliban* gained full control
Speaking in December, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi stressed that challenges facing refugees worldwide, as well as displaced people and their hosts, are immense, and COVID-19 is part of that. UNHCR is seeking $9 billion for its activities in 2022.
A New Normal?
With a third year of the pandemic around the corner, people are being forced to adapt to a "new normal" – mask mandates, testing, self-isolation, and fines. In Australia, even a couple of cases were enough to put entire apartment blocks on harsh lockdowns
In China, a man received a 200,000 yuan ($31,000) fine and a two-year suspended jail sentence for concealing COVID-19 symptoms after a trip abroad and breaking quarantine rules.
Even presidents are not exempt from restrictions. Having arrived in New York for the UN General Assembly in September, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had to eat pizza on the sidewalk, as cafes allow only those vaccinated inside. In October, he was denied entry to a Santos vs Gremio football match for lack of a COVID-19 vaccination certificate.
Media outlets churn out headlines that would have seemed surreal before the pandemic, such as a story about the first international flight arriving at the Sydney airport in November after almost 600 days of COVID-19 restrictions, or a Canadian bride who organised her American wedding on the border with the US because her family was not allowed to enter due to pandemic travel bans.
*The Taliban is an organisation under UN sanctions for terrorist activities