Six Lessons from a Pandemic
Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev speaks about the past, present and future of combating COVID-19
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence
The pandemic of the novel coronavirus infection, COVID-19, has come as the biggest shock in the history of the past few decades. It is no accident that it is sometimes been likened to a third world war, given the devastating aftermath of the spread of this deadly disease. The social sphere, economy and culture of many countries on all continents have suffered a major blow. The number of victims of the disease amounts to dozens of millions. It has killed nearly five million people.
The first and most aggressive attack of the virus was restrained. In addition, most people got used to living amid the pandemic. They got used to the problems, restrictions, and, alas, even the disease itself and its tragic consequences. There is a still a long haul ahead before the ultimate victory. The threat is huge, and the enemy is deadly. Experts speak about the delayed cumulative impact of the current problems. The result of this unprecedented battle, as trite as this might sound, depends on the extent of coordinated action by countries worldwide. Will we be able to learn from the tragic events we have experienced? Will we be ready to review our strategic approaches to the serious global issues and our tactics in the difficult, unpredictable conditions that call for prompt and decisive action? These are crucial questions that all sensible people are asking themselves now. But the governments of all countries, members of international unions, associations and various ‘pressure groups’ that are the decision-makers on the global level must be the first to answer these questions.
A year ago, in my article for the Russia in Global Affairs journal (Security Cooperation During the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic, Russia in Global Affairs, No. 3, July/September 2020 / No. 4, July/August 2020 in Russian). I spoke in detail about these issues. It was already clear at that time that the risks created by the coronavirus were exceptionally high and the response to them must be global. This includes constant and comprehensive cooperation between states, governments and companies. Unfortunately, many of these constructive ideas remained vain wishes: those who I addressed either could not use them or (rather) did not want to.
In order to prevent disasters of such a scale, one must be able to value life above all else.
Therefore, it is still important not to miss the opportunities that still exist. To prevent disasters like a global pandemic of a previously unknown virus, the political will, diplomatic efforts and the ability to value the most important things – life, health and the safety of millions of people – above all else are no less important than advanced technologies and vaccines. The lives of people must be valued regardless of their education, wealth, nationality, age, sex and profession. Otherwise it is impossible to achieve a global victory over the virus.
I would like to elaborate on the lessons we have learned from these past two years and what we should do next.
The first lesson given by the pandemic is that threats should be taken seriously, and instead of responding post-factum, we need to take preventive action.
Many countries viewed the problem in a rather complacent manner during the initial period of the spread of the epidemic, that is, from December 2019 until early March 2020. The first reports of a new disease were treated too lethargically, largely because people believed that the terrible virus was located far away, and that it would not affect developed countries. This can also be explained by the fact that people are used to hearing daily reports about disasters in various parts of the planet. Wire services usually prioritise these reports, but the popular response to them has long been blunted because there are too many of them. However, unlike ordinary people, national leaders should have pressed the alarm button back then.
The delay cost us dearly. By mid-February 2020, the disaster had begun to assume a more and more serious scale. Epidemics know no barriers in the modern world with its transparent borders and global economy. The number of people infected by the new disease and succumbing to it began to increase rapidly. The governments of many countries were faced with the need to quickly overhaul their healthcare systems, ensure extra capacity at hospitals, provide clinics with medical equipment and issue personal protective equipment to people. At that time, Russia started to quickly draft emergency response scenarios in the event of a pandemic. All specialised agencies and services were placed on high alert mode.
From mid- to late March, the pandemic entered its next, acute, phase that lasted until about mid-June 2020. The threat became real, and the disease emanating from China moved to invade other countries. The epidemic was renamed a pandemic.
We remember that period very well. At that time, borders closed, emergency response centres were set up, and restrictions on freedom of movement were introduced. The leaders of every country faced an imaginary dilemma, that is, whether to first save the economy or the people. To be more exact, they faced a dilemma as to whether spend money on social assistance or on supporting businesses. Most countries, including Russia, opted for a mixed scenario. A reasonable balance was found after a tough lockdown period. The state supported the people and the most affected sectors, it responded flexibly to the situation and prevented disastrous scenarios. By the early summer of 2020, Russia came up with effective patient treatment protocols, mastered production of personal protective equipment and their purchase; the same applied to essential medical equipment. Of course, no one was too happy about the quarantine measures that proved fairly effective. It should be openly admitted that the efficiency of the pandemic response efforts was directly proportional to tougher lockdown mandates. China is a case in point. On the other hand, each country and its population have their own specifics, national habits and behavioural stereotypes. Obviously, many schemes which are possible in the East do not work in Europe. But the results were the same everywhere, and the wave of the pandemic began to subside.
There can be no independent immunity in any specific country. A collective global immunity alone is possible, and we have to attain this immunity through concerted efforts.
We entered the pandemic’s third phase in the summer and early autumn of 2020. By that time, most companies and, what is particularly important, the entire education system converted to work from home (WFH) patterns. Russia streamlined administrative tools and set up more effective channels for interaction between citizens and the state. People were able to obtain the most important government services online, and proactive social payments also commenced. It became obvious that the epidemic would strike again with renewed force, and the state allotted considerable resources to prevent it. The trials of anti-COVID-19 vaccines were completed, and the first such vaccines were registered.
Many countries conducted this work simultaneously. At the same time, members of society became more alarmed and discontent. People became tired of protracted lockdowns and constant fears about their health. Human rights violations during lockdowns became the subject of more frequent discussions on various continents.
The fourth stage of the pandemic that commenced in the autumn and winter of 2020-2021 marked a new upsurge in morbidity rates. New virus strains appeared, and the coronavirus spread everywhere, rather than in localised areas as had been the case before. Those who harboured hopes for quickly overcoming the disease and returning to normal life were forced to discard these illusions. Many people viewed the introduction of new restrictive measures and lockdowns in a highly negative manner. We witnessed more active protests in the Netherlands, the United States, Italy, Germany and other countries. This even happened in Russia, although to a much lesser degree.
We entered the pandemic’s fifth phase in the spring of 2021, and this period is still underway. Today, we are witnessing another upsurge in morbidity rates, which, given the greater number of tests, have hit an all-time high. The number of cases fluctuates widely. At the same time, life in the new reality calls for well-thought-out decisions and protracted “trench warfare” against the pandemic. And all countries should conduct this struggle through joint efforts despite all objective difficulties and, all the more so, despite anyone’s political ambitions.
The second lesson of the pandemic is that it can only be stopped with the combined efforts of the international community. By standing alone, we will all be defeated.
What is taking place in the global economy? There is a one-word answer: recession. And this is much more serious than the financial crisis of 2008-2009. International organisations assess the shrinking of the global economy at between 3.3 percent (IMF) and 3.6 percent (World Bank). The situation in some countries is even more dramatic. According to the World Bank, in 2020, the economy shrunk by 9.8 percent in the UK, 8.1 percent in France, 4.9 percent in Germany, 5.4 percent in Canada, 7 percent in South Africa, and 8 percent in India. Overall, the crisis hit industrialised countries with a high level of globalisation especially hard. The International Monetary Fund estimated the decline in the industrialised economies at 4.7 percent in 2020 and developing countries, at 2.2 percent. On the other hand, the industrialised countries are recovering faster. According to OECD forecasts, the majority of industrialised countries will resurge to pre-pandemic levels in terms of per capita GDP by the end of 2022, while some developing countries will do so no sooner than in 2024. A food crisis is developing in the world, with growing food prices everywhere and accelerating food price inflation.
The consequences of this global recession can be overcome with an effective economic recovery policy and the preservation of price stability. The unprecedented sovereign debt and inflation rates in some countries have become a new challenge towards these goals. Much will also depend on the speed of the resumption of foreign trade, especially in the export/import of services.
Nobody can offer precise forecasts. The global economic situation is being influenced by many non-economic factors, such as vaccination rates, the potential emergence of new, more dangerous coronavirus strains and especially, political factors, the biggest of which is the political will to pursue international cooperation against the coronavirus. However, not all countries are ready for this, which is one of the biggest problems today.
Any crisis invariably changes many things in the world, including the balance of forces on the international stage. The “corona-crisis” is no exception. Its unique feature is that all countries, both economically powerful and weak ones, are equal before it and have been affected by it in one way or another. All of them have had to mobilise their resources. The pandemic’s effect on health and social services is especially serious and sometimes crippling. Every country had to choose between more than two evils, and even the most effective countries were not protected against new outbreaks. Globalisation, modern technology and the speed of transport exchanges are turning the planet into an ideal medium for the spread of the virus. No country can effectively lower an “iron curtain” against a disease. It will have to resume trade sooner or later, issue entry visas for tourists and businesspeople, and let its own citizens travel abroad. This means, and has been clear since the first article was published, that herd immunity in any country will not protect it from the virus. The only solution is global herd immunity which can only be achieved through mass vaccination worldwide.
This simple truth is clear to doctors, scientists and representatives of international humanitarian organisations. But experience shows that far from all national governments are ready to accept it. Calls for universal solidarity and mutual assistance amid the pandemic, for lifting the sanctions that are hampering the work of healthcare systems, and even for ceasefires in the world’s hot spots have not produced the desired effect. National egotism, the “caveman logic” of the cold war period, paranoid phantom fears, and attempts to uphold one’s own, narrow geopolitical interests too often prove to be stronger than universal human values.
Governments have closed national borders without any warning or consultations with their neighbours. At the same time, they were not ready to share information, including data of vital significance for scientists and doctors, or to help others with medications and equipment. Some countries chose to respond to their problems independently, while some did it at others’ expense.
Vaccination nationalism and commercial wars have claimed an unjustified number of lives.
Some countries’ sanctions policy has not changed even during the pandemic. Moreover, the fight against the purely commercial Nord Stream 2 project has gained momentum. New conflicts have flared up, for example in Nagorno-Karabakh, and ongoing conflicts have not abated in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, several skirmishes took place on the China-India border, and conflicts broke out in Africa. The trade war between the United States and China has been aggravated by ideological confrontation and has deteriorated into a cold war. Open provocations have become more frequent, especially in Europe. Over the past year, it has become routine for NATO warships to approach and sometimes violate Russian maritime space in the Baltic and Black seas.
The pandemic has also delivered a blow to integration, which is especially evident in the EU, which used to be one of the strongest associations. COVID-19 has shown that Europe is not standing united against this common threat. Many European countries did not support each other at the height of the pandemic. When the number of coronavirus cases peaked in Italy, it received assistance from Russia and China, whereas the other EU countries closed their hospitals to Italian patients. Moreover, the customs services of the Czech Republic seized the face masks and respirators sent to Italy. It took Poland, Romania and Germany a very long time to decide to help Italy. Austria, Germany and Luxembourg ultimately agreed to provide hospital services to patients from Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Italy.
After the first peak of the coronavirus, European institutions tried to correct their mistakes, adapt to the new situation and work out preventive measures for the future. In 2020, the EU adopted over a thousand measures designed to minimise the negative consequences of the pandemic and protect not only lives but also incomes. Taken together, the approved budget increases and the NextGenerationEU recovery plan are the largest ever stimulus packages valued at around 1.8 trillion euros (European Commission, Consolidated Annual Accounts of the European Union 2020).
The third lesson of the pandemic: Mutual trust between states is more important than commerce, ideology or competition
The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed yet another problem, which is a global crisis of trust. This crisis manifested itself in the general disregard for international organisations, the ‘battle of vaccines,’ endless mutual suspicions and scapegoating. The authority of the World Health Organisation was seriously shaken. Many countries initially avoided cooperating with the WHO and the United States actually cut off its funding. Eventually, cooperation within the WHO was somehow put back on track. However, certain problems persist to this day. The biggest problem is that this organisation lacks leverage that it could use to enforce compliance with a common policy approved at all political levels. National governments are free to ignore WHO recommendations or issue their own decisions which sometimes contradict worldwide decisions. Therefore, we should consider granting the WHO the authority to take significant mobilisation decisions during emergencies (for example, a pandemic) in the interests of the entire global community. For the WHO to receive this kind of authority, UN members may be required to adopt an international convention on cooperation in this area.
Unfortunately, there is no solid system of guarantees at the moment that would prevent dangerous scenarios in the event of another pandemic. History knows examples of non-ideological international cooperation actually helping doctors and scientists from different countries to develop effective means to combat serious illnesses such as polio, measles and smallpox. Today geopolitical interests seem to clash even when it comes to vaccination. There are about ten COVID-19 vaccines in the world but not a single one of them is certified in all countries.
Why not? The answer is obvious. All countries are committed to supporting their own vaccine producers before others. There is also an ideological side to vaccination. “Our own vaccine is better,” they say even if there is no proof of that. There are also commercial interests as countries want to sell their own vaccine on the international market and get ahead of competitors. They forget one thing, though: each vial is a saved or lost life. “Vaccine nationalism” and commercial wars have already caused significant unnecessary loss of life. The WHO’s weakness and the lack of a supra-national body that can influence epidemiological measures in different countries are literally self-defeating.
It is absolutely obvious that it is not just a duty but an obligation for all countries in the world to forgo their own geopolitical interests for the sake of saving lives. They need to recognise the vaccines developed in other countries. But most importantly, they need to supply a sufficient amount of these vaccines to the UN and the WHO for countries that cannot afford them.
It is not just a duty but an obligation of all countries to forgo their own geopolitical interests for the sake of saving lives. They need to recognise the vaccines developed in other countries.
There is one more aspect of foreign policy that is closely linked to mutual recognition of the vaccines: COVID-19 vaccine passports, or as they are sometimes metaphorically called “passports of opportunities.” They are the simplest and most logical way to restore a fundamental human right, the right to freedom of movement. With these passports, it will be possible to reopen borders while ensuring personal safety. But this system will be effective only if different vaccines are recognised by a large number of countries – and if there is a common data exchange system for COVID-19 cases and vaccinations (under the aegis of the UN or another UN authorised body).
Just like a year ago, it has to be repeated that both of these organisations must provide a platform for developing initiatives that can help combat this dangerous infection across all continents. It is not just a role – it is a mission that must be conferred upon powerful and influential international bodies, for they can stand above prejudice and political interests which are currently hindering cooperation on a global scale.
Vaccine nationalism is fueled by the serious suspicions that countries harbour against each other – specifically, the suspicion that this deadly virus was created by humans. These allegations are based on the fact that there are actual laboratories that study deadly viruses in the United States and, what is particularly concerning for Russia, in the CIS countries. There is absolutely no transparency when it comes to these centres’ activity and no international supervision of this kind of research. Another infection that the world will not be able to survive may leak from one of these labs, and this danger is real. There must be an oversight system for these labs based on the principles of mutual transparency. Most importantly, we need to create an international system of mutual guarantees and full accountability for spreading hazardous substances and compounds. At the current level of globalisation, this kind of leak could cause a disaster within hours. Moreover, the global community must agree that, when emergencies occur, countries must immediately notify each other about biological or any other threats.
In my previous article I wrote that it is necessary to fully comply with the Biological Weapons Convention, one of the fundamental international security documents. When the pandemic is over, it will be important to fundamentally review the principles of international cooperation in biological research. Unfortunately, not all of our partners show willingness to cooperate in this area, which is causing tension and mutual mistrust.
The crisis has exacerbated another problem: organised crime, terrorist and extremist groups are increasingly moving online. This is a serious security threat for many countries. I have already mentioned joint efforts against cybercrime, cooperation of law enforcement agencies and developing global security systems for the digital environment. We need new laws and international conventions to counter terrorism and crimes online. Unfortunately, we have to admit that progress in this area is very slow. Nothing significant has been achieved in the past year.
The fourth lesson of the pandemic: Vaccine mandates are ineffective, education is needed.
How critical is the threat posed by the novel coronavirus? Is general vaccination crucial as a preventive measure against new outbreaks? While the answer may seem obvious, public opinion in divided. More than that, so-called covid dissident groups are exhorting people to ignore the recommendations of virologists and doctors.
The state faces issues with no obvious moral options. To what extent can people’s personal interests be permitted to conflict with the interests of society and the safety of others? Does the state have the right to mandate vaccination?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, all countries have been doing awareness-raising work. They have been trying to persuade citizens that sometimes personal interests, convenience, or even basic rights such as free movement need to be sacrificed for the common good. Sometimes we have to submit to medical treatment whether we want it or not because we pose a risk of infecting others. All official quarantine orders must be followed. Getting vaccinated is a must if you are in a high-risk group for further spread of the virus. In response, we hear the predictable accusations of “vaccine authoritarianism” and “human rights abuse.”
Are such mandates always justified? The issue is complex and controversial. While human rights are a core value, there are citizens who are directly exposed to the virus, or who come into contact with a huge number of people, working in medicine or education, in the food industry, public institutions, and other crowded venues. An infection in these places endangers other people’s health and lives; it violates other people's rights. Finding the right balance must be the goal.
Of course, the freedom of tens and even thousands of people can be restricted for the sake of saving millions. This has happened more than once during wars, terrorist threats, and epidemics. But can does not mean must. While some countries are actually forcing their citizens to get vaccinated, Russia did not opt for this policy. Vaccination is generally voluntary in our country. However, all regions of Russia had adopted vaccine mandates for certain categories of citizens by the end of October. At the same time, debates on general mandatory vaccination continue at the expert level and, as they say, around the kitchen table.
In certain situations, public safety concerns outweigh individual rights and freedoms. Protecting the majority is the fundamental principle of democracy.
Let’s dig deeper into this question. I have been asked to provide an opinion on this before. When it comes to mandatory vaccination, countries split into three groups: a) adopted mandatory vaccination; b) vaccine mandates for specific categories; c) vaccination is fully voluntary. Russia, as I already noted, is in the b group.
At the same time, we place certain restrictions on unvaccinated persons. They can face a ban on travelling to other countries, denial of services at educational or healthcare facilities, suspension from work or denial of employment. COVID-19 vaccination is not yet included in the general national immunisation schedule. However, Russians face no criminal or administrative sanction for violating vaccination mandates (whereas legal entities are liable for failure to comply with Rospotrebnadzor requirements). In other words, Russian laws regulating this area remain quite liberal at this stage.
In contrast, a number of countries have introduced mandatory vaccination, including Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Indonesia, Fiji, Saudi Arabia, Italy (with some exceptions), and several other states. The United States requires vaccination or mandatory testing at companies with more than 100 employees. Several European countries impose high fines for refusing to vaccinate. Italy uses a mix of fines and other administrative measures, and there are even criminal penalties in France. The European Court of Human Rights, with its April 8, 2021 decision on Vavřička and Others v. Czech Republic, upheld the legality of compulsory vaccination programmes. That decision recognised measures such as administrative fines for failure to vaccinate or sending home an unvaccinated preschool child as legitimate, and vaccination was recognised as mandatory and necessary in a democratic society. Because this is an emergency, the ECHR abandoned its typical rhetoric and actually required specific individuals to get vaccinated. Indeed, when it comes to the lives and health of millions of people, there can be no more political games or abuse of their rights.
It will be recalled that the first vaccination campaign started in Russia based on a 1796 decree on mandatory vaccination (variolation) against smallpox issued by Catherine II. This was a method invented way back in ancient China. The Soviet Union drew up a prevention schedule for inoculation and required vaccination against smallpox, typhus, malaria, TB and poliomyelitis. Regrettably, this system collapsed along with the USSR and the attitude to vaccination came to be shaped by ignorant anti-vaccine propaganda. This propaganda relies on contradictory and misleading information verging, in a number of cases, on premeditated unlawful actions constituting a clear threat to public safety. It is for this reason that Russia is facing so much difficulty in the course of its current vaccination campaign. If we fail to find ways to persuade people that they are behaving irresponsibly and even, let us be frank about it, against the interests of society, we are in for even harder times.
There are many methods for fighting pessimism, skepticism and fear. People’s main objections are that the medicines against COVID-19 are new and little studied, and that they have been made in haste and pose a number of side effects. But, most importantly, many are concerned that even after inoculation there is a risk of contagion and illness. Experts have repeatedly provided reasoned and detailed answers to these concerns. They explained that all the vaccines went through the full cycle of approval and that certain stages of research were simply conducted in parallel, which is normal during an epidemic. The side effects of vaccination are well-known and described in specialist literature. Groups of patients were identified, for whom vaccination was not recommended. But the most important thing to remember is that when inoculated people get sick, it is more likely to be a mild or asymptomatic case. Apart from everything else, this reduces the burden on medical institutions and enables doctors to focus on other patients, administering elective treatments and performing scheduled surgeries. This situation came to a head earlier this autumn, when upwards of 1,000 COVID-19 deaths were being recorded every day despite natural immunity in Russia standing at 45 percent of the population. To induce workers to get jabbed, employers use a system of incentives, including compensatory leave, one-time payments, adjusted working hours, etc. The same methods are being employed on the national scale, with vaccination certificate holders allowed unrestricted admission to public events and spaces. They can travel freely and work or study in person rather than online. Of no small consequence has been the personal example shown by prominent public figures and opinion leaders, up to the heads of state.
We should not discount the effect of purely marketing moves either, nor propaganda for anti-COVID-19 medicines and the possibility to choose between different types of vaccines. It is necessary to make them more available so that people can get jabbed quickly, free of charge, at a convenient vaccination site. And, of course, international cooperation plays an important role here, both in terms of expanding the range of vaccines in use and introducing universal COVID passports. However, the recent record shows that all of this is not enough to encourage responsible social behaviour in a time of crisis.
Some negative methods are possible as well, with significant implications for the rights of the unvaccinated. I am referring to a situation where they are transferred to working online instead of with people, or faced with reduced wages because COVID deniers are a threat to the public. As I said, many countries are actively using these methods. There is no doubt that this creates a degree of segregation on the basis of inoculation. But these measures are rather effective and most people understand and support them. After all, the unvaccinated are doing harm not only to themselves but also to the people around them, particularly children, who are not yet vaccinated in the majority of countries. Therefore, improving laws in this sphere is a challenge that the Russian government is yet to answer. Let us be frank about it: the answer will depend on the level of threat to public safety posed by the pandemic. In certain situations, public safety and the wellbeing of the entire population outweigh individual rights and freedoms. Protecting the majority is a fundamental principle of democracy, whether we like it or not…
The fifth lesson of the pandemic: Every cloud has a silver lining
Much has been said already about the damage caused by the coronavirus. Still, even faced with this devastating challenge, humanity has been able to benefit from it and accomplish the unimaginable. There were positive developments over the past two years that we owe to the pandemic, even if this may sound like a paradox.
Most importantly, we learned to swiftly respond to the hardest and most unpredictable of challenges. In February 2020, no one in Russia could have imagined that so much was possible in so little time. We succeeded in effectively mobilising the healthcare system, reinventing the way our government agencies operate, launching the production of life-saving medicines, vaccines, and PPE, building and opening new hospitals and treatment centres, and creating a reliable system for keeping people informed and up to date using electronic services. This required an immense effort and huge resources, but we delivered on our objectives. This experience will serve us in the future.
COVID-19 has accelerated the fourth industrial revolution. Online services have been experiencing explosive growth since March 2020 in terms of both quantity and quality, including food delivery, access to public services, streaming cultural events, bank payments or remote learning. This is all attributable to the urgent need to avoid face-to-face contact. However, online tools have become an integral part of our lives. We have grown accustomed to them and want to be able to use them every day.
At the same time, a previously overlooked problem has emerged: some people, and even entire regions and countries, suffer from digital inequality. Cash is becoming a thing of the past as people everywhere move to cashless payment methods. However, according to various estimates, 1.7 billion people, or 22 percent of the global population, still lack access to modern bank technology (Vedomosti, July, 30, 2020, Virus-induced changes: How the pandemic brought the inevitable future closer). Without access to digital services and a reliable internet connection, people are deprived of essential opportunities.
Fake news account for almost one fifth of all information on COVID-19. Many countries have had to contend with attempts to manipulate public opinion.
The pandemic transformed the employer-employee relationship in meaningful ways, too. Many routine procedures, including document workflow, are now digital. Remote work used to be viewed as an exception, but has now firmly established itself as a new kind of employment. With a reliable internet connection, an employee does not necessarily have to be present in the employer’s office or even in a specific location, but can be anywhere in the world. This has prompted more people to move to places that suit them best, and regional internet infrastructure has had to keep pace.
At the same time, states had to create a legal framework for remote work and enact legislation. Legal questions of whether remote workers can be paid less, how to protect their labour rights and how to introduce restrictions and preferences have been widely debated. We have yet to outline the legal framework for this kind of employment, which is a challenging task that will take quite some time. Russia was very quick to amend its labour law on remote work, which extended protection to many employees working from home. We are now accumulating case law on labour contracts. It is obvious that there will still be many conflicts in this sphere moving forward.
The question of remote learning, including secondary education and above, continues to divide society. On the one hand, there is every reason to view it as a step forward, into the digital space of the new millennium. People living in various parts of the world can benefit from equal opportunities and enjoy equal access to educational programmes. On the other hand, in many cases meaningful knowledge can be acquired only in person, directly from a teacher. We need to reach a reasonable balance and address all the organisational, legal, and financial issues.
The pandemic has also influenced information, mass media and big data. On top of fighting the virus, we had to counter destructive informational attacks and news designed to sow panic and chaos. According to various estimates, fake news accounts for almost one fifth of all information on COVID-19. This is a conservative estimate. Many countries have had to contend with attempts to manipulate public opinion and destabilise an already challenging situation. We had to come up with new approaches to collecting and processing reliable wide-ranging statistics, while also carrying out educational and awareness projects for the public. Russia and other countries adopted laws introducing severe sanctions for spreading information that is inaccurate or intended to provoke. This must not be viewed as an effort to restrict freedom of speech or promote censorship. This is about false information and spreading it intentionally in an environment when any stray word can lead to dangerous consequences, inflame social tensions or even trigger crime.
The sixth lesson of the pandemic: The crisis is here to stay
Whether we like it or not, the coronavirus has become a part of life and will remain so for a long time. Even if a mass vaccination effort produces herd immunity to this disease, new local outbreaks are still possible. There is every reason to believe that the overall situation can be brought under control in the coming months. At the same time, it is just as obvious that we need to be ready to counter threats of this kind in future. This requires governments across the world to pay serious attention to all systems that ensure the lives and livelihoods, health and wellbeing of the people. We need to introduce new technology and tools in all spheres of economic activity and in our everyday lives. Maximum effort and resources must go toward addressing key social inequities, supporting the most vulnerable and creating a safety cushion for emergency situations. Every person must enjoy guaranteed access to quality healthcare, including both emergency and elective treatments, as well as medicines, vaccines, and protective equipment. All this enables people not only to survive during hard times, but to live their full lives every day.
There is every reason to believe that the overall situation can be brought under control in the coming months. At the same time, it is just as obvious that we need to be ready to counter threats of this kind in the future.
What happened over the past two years left an indelible mark on our civilisation. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that “'every one of us is responsible to all people for all people.” Today, we must all rethink our personal responsibility for our own health and the safety of other people, for everything that is happening in the world, and in general for the destiny of all humankind.