Covid-19: Beginning of the end?

There have been well over half a million (613,413) Covid-19 deaths globally as of July 21, 2020. A timeline and geographical analysis of the mortality data, normalised to deaths per million to enable cross-country comparisons, in the accompanying table has both good and bad news.

The good news is that the pandemic appears to be receding across the board, although the possibility of a second wave cannot still be ruled out.

As is to be expected, this recession is uneven. The bad news is the possibility of elongation of the epidemic cycle in some regions, and that over the last six weeks, India is the worst performer amongst the major countries, including those in its South Asian neighbourhood. Only South Africa fared worse.

Based on data available till April 20, it was argued in this paper (Business Standard, June 8) available till June 6, 2020, concluded that while there remained a wide differential in mortality per million between the two zones, this Covid Maginot Line was nevertheless being breached. Mortality was rising sharply in the south even as it was declining in the north.

The data, now available up to July 21, shows that while this trend has accentuated, the pandemic is nevertheless receding across the board. In terms of mortality, however, the Covid axis appears to have shifted from north-south to east-west, on account of increased mortality in Latin America, West Asia, North Africa and South Asia. Barring the latter, most of these countries either adjoin the Atlantic Ocean, or are linked to it through the Mediterranean. Instead of 30 degrees north, the critical divide now appears to be the Atlantic Ocean.

The 31 countries represented in the table account for 72 per cent of the world’s population and currently 86 per cent of Covid-19 mortality. Of these, 23 countries classified as part of the Atlantic system with just 24 per cent of the global population have 79 per cent of the global Covid mortality. On the other hand, eight Asian countries, accounting for 48 per cent of 
the global population, have just 7 per cent of Covid mortality. 

The data points to a 18-week Covid cycle consisting of three sub cycles of six weeks each. In the first phase, mortality rises sharply. In the second, it declines while continuing to remain high. In the third, the epidemic is practically halted. This three-phase cycle can be seen in the case of China, followed by Europe and North America. The increase in Covid mortality has practically halted in some of the worst-affected European countries. The aggregate mortality, however, remains relatively high in this region on account of legacy deaths. Also, the drop in mortality is less sharp in Russia, and also in the UK, Portugal, Sweden and North America.
Following the breach of the 30 degrees north Maginot Line, mortality rose sharply in Latin America, West Asia, North Africa and South Asia. A noticeable feature of the cycle in these regions is that first, mortality in the first sub-cycle, and second, mortality decline in the second sub-cycle, are much lower, than what it was in China and Europe. These regions could therefore have a lower legacy of deaths per million of the population, because of the base effect. It is also possible that stabilisation of the epidemic in these regions may extend beyond the three sub-cycles described above.

Outside the Atlantic region, the Asian region has on the whole weathered the Covid storm very well, except for South Asia, where India is the worst performer. India has 37 per cent of the population of the eight selected Asian countries but a disproportionate 60 per cent of Covid deaths in the region. Six weeks ago, India’s Covid mortality per million stood at the Asian average of 4.8; it is now significantly higher at 20.4, compared to the regional average of 12.7. 

Only Pakistan has a higher mortality rate amongst these eight Asian countries. The mortality growth in Pakistan over the last six weeks was however significantly lower than that in India.

The only consolation appears to be that mortality growth has declined sharply in India over the past six weeks compared to the previous six weeks, as elsewhere. India is therefore likely to end the pandemic at significantly lower than the global average mortality per million on account of lower legacy deaths in the first sub-cycle. This is still less than a tenth of the average for the Atlantic region, and about a quarter of the global average.

The decline in Covid mortality is no doubt uneven, as the infection cycle is not spatially synchronised. Individual experiences can therefore vary at the micro level, depending on where you are. At the macro bird’s eye level, however, the picture is clearer, with the upswings now out shadowed by the downswings.

Might the Covid axis swivel once again, especially since mortality growth, while declining sharply (with the notable exception of Iran, where there is a marginal increase), is nevertheless significantly higher in South Asia in the second phase than what it was in China Europe and North America? On account of the far lower legacy deaths in the first phase, however, South Asia (including India) is likely to end the pandemic with far lower deaths per million compared to the Trans-Atlantic countries. 

With a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon, and mortality declining sharply across the board, albeit unevenly, we might well be seeing the beginning of the end of the Covid 19 pandemic. One would, however, still need to watch out for a possible elongation of the epidemic cycle in some regions, and for a second wave. 
The author is RBI chair professor, ICRIER

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