Nobody is clapping any more. Six months since Covid-19 registered as an urgent threat, and one country after another spiralled into lockdown, the nightly outpourings of solidarity with essential workers have petered out.

Governments behind which people rallied earlier in the outbreak are again facing criticism and scorn. Panic at the scenarios that filled imaginations in those first weeks – of millions of imminent deaths, medical systems buckling and food supplies running scarce – has largely abated.

Brazil 67,964 deaths, 1,713,160 cases

President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the disease as a “little flu” as it rampaged through his country and mocked measures such as wearing masks. Two health ministers have quit and Brazil’s outbreak is the second-deadliest in the world.

India 21,129 deaths, 767,296 cases

India brought in a strict nationwide lockdown in March that slowed the spread of the virus but did not bring it under control. As the country began easing controls, cases surged and it now has the third highest number. Mortality rates are low, but it is unclear if this reflects reporting problems or a relatively resilient population.

Iran 250,458 cases, 12,305 deaths

Iran had one of the first major outbreaks outside China. A lockdown slowed its spread but after that was eased in April, cases rebounded. Several senior officials have tested positive, and the government has strengthened controls, including making masks obligatory in public places.

Israel 33,947 cases, 346 deaths

Israel had an early travel ban and strict lockdowns, and in April the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared the country an example to the world in controlling Covid-19. But cases that in May were down to just 20 a day, skyrocketed after the country started opening up. Partial controls have been brought back with warnings more could follow.

Mexico 275,003 cases, 32,796 deaths

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador joined other populists from across the political spectrum in dismissing the threat from coronavirus; when schools closed in March he shared a video of himself hugging fans and kissing a baby. The outbreak is now one of the worst on the continent.

Philippines 51,754 cases, 1,314 deaths

A strict lockdown from March to June kept the disease under control but shrank the economy for the first time in 20 years. Cases have climbed steadily since the country started coming out of lockdown, and President Rodrigo Duterte has said the country cannot afford to fully reopen because it would be overwhelmed by another spike.

Russia 706,179 cases, 10,825 deaths

Coronavirus was slow to arrive in Russia, and travel bans and a lockdown initially slowed its spread, but controls were lifted twice for political reasons – a military parade and a referendum on allowing Putin to stay in power longer. Despite having the fourth biggest outbreak in the world controls are now being eased nationwide.

Serbia 17,342 cases, 352 deaths

Cases are rising rapidly, hospitals are full and doctors exhausted. But the government has rowed back from plans to bring back lockdown controls, after two days of violent protests. Critics blame the sharp rise in cases on authorities who allowed mass gatherings in May and elections in June. Officials say it is due to a lack of sanitary discipline, especially in nightclubs.

South Africa 224,664 cases, 3,602 deaths

South Africa has by far the largest outbreak on the African continent, despite one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Sales of alcohol and cigarettes were even banned. But it began reopening in May, apparently fuelling the recent rise in cases which have more than doubled over the last two weeks.

US 132,310 deaths, 3,055,491 cases

The US ban on travellers from overseas came too late, and though most states had lockdowns of some form in spring, they varied in length and strictness. Some places that were among the earliest to lift them are now battling fast-rising outbreaks, and the country has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths. Opposition to lockdowns and mask-wearing remains widespread.

Source: Johns Hopkins CSSE, 9 July

Photograph: Mark R Cristino/EPA

But the virus has not. More than 200 days since coronavirus was first detected, public health authorities say the number of infections is accelerating and the peak still lies ahead. In early August, the world finds itself at a nebulous stage: past the shock of the pandemic but without a clear end in sight.

It is a period of grinding negotiation between a virus whose dynamics are still mysterious and the increasingly pressing need to earn incomes, educate children and connect with one another. It will go on until a vaccine can be found and distributed on a mass scale, or lasting immunity is possible and built at great human cost.

Global cases chart

“At the beginning of this outbreak we were saying this is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Alexandra Phelan, an associate professor at the Center for Global Health Science and Security in Georgetown University, Washington DC. “Now it’s becoming evident this is more of an ultramarathon. This is going to be an incredibly long slog.”

It was estimated in March that half of humanity was under some form of lockdown. Months later, the world’s experience has fractured. Living in a pandemic has become normal – but what normal looks like varies dramatically.

Living with the virus

The beaches near Lisbon have been “absolutely rammed” this summer, says Julia Georgallis, and live music has sounded from her restaurant to tables spilling into the street.

A few miles away, five working-class neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the Portuguese capital spent most of July in lockdown, with residents allowed to leave their homes only for food, medicine or work.

Terrified by scenes of overwhelmed hospitals in Italy and Spain, countries such as Portugal locked down hard in March and infection rates fell. What has followed is an experiment in how much of normal life the coronavirus permits.

Julia Georgallis: ‘There was another spike, so the government imposed more measures.’

Lisbon has relaxed and reimposed restrictions in fits and starts. “After a month of reopening, because everyone was partying – there were just so many parties, people drinking in the streets – there was another spike, so the government imposed more measures,” Georgallis says.

Masks are ubiquitous, and business owners and customers must navigate a maze of frequently shifting rules. Everything shuts by 11pm. “It’s weird for a country that eats at 9pm and goes out at 2am,” she says.

These limits may not be enough. As one-time success stories such as Hong Kong, Melbourne or India’s Kerala state can attest, victories against the virus are fragile. Cases are climbing again in Australia, the Middle East and Europe – including by hundreds every day in Portugal.

For countries that have slowed the spread of the virus, this stage of the pandemic presents difficult choices, says Babak Javid, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Short of complete suppression and locking your borders, you’re always going to get an increase in cases as you ease up,” he says. “The question becomes: can you live with it or not?”

That means striking bargains with the virus: shutting risky industries such as nightclubs, mandating masks and testing widely, but accepting that limited spread will not be stopped – and that it would be too costly to other public health priorities to do so.

Graphic shows how world went quiet during coronavirus lockdowns – video

In Lisbon, the pandemic has thinned the ranks of tourists and locals are enjoying the extra room and cheaper holiday homes to rent. “People are saying we’ve got the city back,” Georgallis says. “But come winter, it’s going to be a struggle because people haven’t made the money they would have in the summer.”

People enjoy the sunny weather at Carcavelos beach, near Lisbon, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

About one in five workers in the country have been laid off since the start of the pandemic. Around the world, the virus has triggered an economic crisis “like no other”, according to the International Monetary Fund, which has repeatedly revised up its estimate of the impact. The equivalent of nearly 400m full-time jobs have been lost, the UN’s labour agency says.

The blow has been cushioned somewhat in countries such as France, the UK and Australia, which learned from the 2008 crash that it was cheaper in the long run to pay for businesses to furlough workers in order to speed up recovery when the crisis ebbs. The US is among those that instead paid individuals directly, with about 30 million people – one in five of the workforce – now on the dole.

In early August, it is not just savings running low in many countries but also morale. “People are very much over this,” Georgallis says. “No one’s really scared any more … They are just getting on with it.”

Where the curves never flattened

Coronavirus first hit home for Robin Neely when he read an obituary for a fellow teacher. “I thought, OK, it’s not a distant other-person problem,” he says. “It’s an ‘us’ problem. It’s here.”



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