A smattering of headlines lamenting the many ironies of the UK’s “Freedom Day” was a microcosm of the global mood Monday.
“England’s ‘freedom day’ marred by soaring cases and isolation chaos,” Reuters wrote, summing up the plot of a tragicomedy that found Boris Johnson isolating on the very day he was to declare the country unshackled. “Johnson’s big day was marred by ‘pingdemic chaos’ as a National Health Service app ordered hundreds of thousands of people to self-isolate, prompting warnings supermarket shelves could soon be emptied,” the article went on to recount.
Nothing says “freedom” quite like emergency smartphone alerts from public health authorities, mandated isolations and empty supermarket shelves. Although deaths are far lower versus previous peaks, new cases in the UK have surged. On Sunday, there were nearly 50,000 (figure below).
That looks scary (and in many ways, it is), but almost 90% of the population has had at least one vaccine dose. More than 68% have had two doses. On January 19, there were 1,289 COVID-related deaths in the UK. The recent high was just 40 and the seven-day average was under 30 as of July 9 (the last day for which the UK government offered complete data as of the time of writing).
The AP described ridiculous scenes at newly-“freed” venues. “Corks popped, beats boomed out and giddy revelers rushed onto dancefloors when England’s nightclubs reopened Monday as the country lifted most remaining restrictions after more than a year,” read the first line of an article featuring a picture of a (grown) man leaping through falling confetti flanked by women and smoke machines.
A few sentences later, the AP summarized the problem. “But while entertainment businesses and ravers are jubilant, many others are deeply worried about the British government’s decision to scrap restrictions at a time when COVID-19 cases are on a rapid upswing due to the highly infectious Delta variant first identified in India,” Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless wrote, on the way to quoting a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester who said “I can’t think of any realistic good scenario to come out of this strategy.”
That probably wasn’t meant as deadpan humor, but it certainly came across that way. “That’s the perfect mixing vessel for the virus to spread and to even generate new variants,” the same person said, of nightclubs.
Speaking to the public from isolation, Johnson blandly noted that “Cases are rising. We can see the extreme contagiousness of the Delta variant.” He’s putting his faith in the still-subdued death count. “There is no doubt at all that the vaccine program has very severely weakened the link between infection and hospitalization and between infection and serious illness and death,” he remarked.
No one doubts that. The question isn’t whether the vaccines have reduced the likelihood of mass fatalities. Rather, the question is whether it’s a good idea to drop all restrictions in ceremonial fashion, effectively inviting the entire country to throw a giant party with a highly-contagious variant spreading and cases spiraling higher.
Globally, the headlines are more ominous by the day. It’s obvious (forgive me) that the Olympics should have been cancelled. Coco Gauff is now the poster child (and you can take “child” literally there — she’s 17) for how perilous the situation is. She’s out after testing positive. Multiple cases have been reported in Tokyo’s athletes’ village. We know COVID can have long-term health ramifications. Why would we put the world’s best athletes in a position to contract a virus that might permanently impair their capacity to perform and earn? (Oh, that’s right: Because the rest of us need to earn. We have to monetize the Olympics. So we’ll jeopardize the health of the main attraction so we can line our pockets. Like circus profiteers.)
“Public opinion polls in Japan have shown tepid support for going ahead with the games, which were already postponed by a year, and a nationwide surge in cases has cast a further pall over the event,” The New York Times wrote, noting that “anxiety over the Olympics has intensified as the highly contagious Delta variant driv[es] new outbreaks in places where transmission was once kept relatively low, but where the pace of vaccination has lagged.” Japan is one of those places. So is South Korea. And, as documented here over the weekend, so is Indonesia (figure below). All spectators, international and domestic, are barred from the games.
All of this is now clearly weighing on risk sentiment. Markets generally ignored India’s tragedy (in May), but as Bloomberg’s Vassilis Karamanis wrote Monday, nerves are frayed.
“The past week was the first for some time where virus stories were among the terminal’s most read on a daily basis, and how could it be otherwise?,” Karamanis asked, adding that “as the virus mutates in order to survive and a significant number of people globally haven’t been vaccinated, cases are on the rise and the news seems endless once again.”
So, it feels like we’re back where we were — only with less death in rich, developed countries. It’s difficult to escape the notion that humanity isn’t going to be rid of COVID absent a miracle cure. (“Supposing we hit the body with very powerful light.” Has anyone tried that yet?)
Writing Monday, Rabobank’s Michael Every drew the war parallel. “While the war against COVID began at the start of 2020, and we are all heartily sick of it, wars can go a lot longer than people want them to, and end in defeat, as we just saw in Afghanistan.”