The beginning of 2020 marked the beginning of one of the hardest years for people around the world. There was a belief that 2021 would spell a better year that would wipe away the hard year that had preceded it, but alas 2021 was simply a harsher version of 2020, and the end of the suffering still does not look near.
The new year of 2022 is carrying the baggage of these two years as the geopolitical, health and economic situations across the world become ever more complex.
The Covid-19 pandemic became more vicious in 2021, with over 306 million people infected by the virus by January 2022. It has caused over 5.5 million deaths since it was discovered in China over two years ago. The virus has already infected nearly 3.4 per cent of the global population, and it is showing no signs of slowing down despite the strict measures taken in many countries.
In countries that conducted massive vaccinations of their populations such as the UK, the daily numbers of infections still remain staggeringly high, with the UK reporting 218,724 cases on 4 January alone and reaching 14.3 million cases by 8 January. This would bring the total of infected people to about one in every five in a country with a population of 68 million.
The situation was no less dire in other countries across the world, with countries such as the US reporting over 61 million infections since the beginning of the pandemic, India reporting 35 million and Brazil reporting 22 million. The pandemic is also not showing any signs of slowing down.
The emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which is characterised by its rapid infectious capabilities, contributed to the skyrocketing numbers of infections by the end of 2021. Christmas celebrations were cancelled in countries such as the UK, Germany and Holland. Many countries are also experiencing lockdowns that are causing massive negative economic effects, especially in the hospitality and commercial sectors.
No government can end this nightmare, and repetitive lockdowns have caused major protests in countries such as Austria, Holland and Australia. Governments simply cannot provide answers to their citizens about when they will manage to control the spread of the virus.
In addition to the spread of the coronavirus, international political feuds also escalated dramatically last year. US-Chinese relations are witnessing potential conflict over Taiwan and naval control of the Pacific Ocean. China now has the largest navy in the world and has managed to surpass its US counterpart.
The US is also facing another potential military conflict in Ukraine as Russia has amassed about 90,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. Reports of the ramp-up indicate that Russia may be preparing for an invasion of Ukraine should it join the NATO alliance.
The ongoing negotiations have indicated that each side is showing rigidity in its position, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently using harsh rhetoric against the Russian actions in Ukraine. He mentioned prior to the negotiations with Russia that they would not be successful with “a gun pointed to Ukraine’s head.” He also reiterated the US and NATO positions that they do not accept Russian provocations in Ukraine and reject Russian demands that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Russia believes that NATO expanded its borders in the 1990s and afterwards by inviting former Soviet republics such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and former Warsaw Pact members such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to join the Alliance. The Russians believe that Ukraine joining NATO will compromise its national security, and therefore it treats the matter as a “red line”. Russia has also been involved in the ongoing Civil War in eastern Ukraine since 2014, and it is threatening to take measures if Ukraine joins NATO.
Finding middle ground that protects Ukraine’s sovereignty and the political choice to join or not to join NATO or the EU while maintaining Russia’s security seems elusive. With the potential confrontation with China over Taiwan’s sovereignty and the showdown with Russia over Ukraine, US President Joe Biden has been faced with the biggest challenge of his presidency thus far. If his handling of the Afghanistan crisis is any indicator, Biden is in for serious trouble.
Last August, Biden committed a strategic and political blunder of the first order when he haphazardly withdrew US troops from Afghanistan, opening the door to the takeover of the country by the terrorist Taliban group. The decision came without any real warning, leading to the surrender of Afghan government forces to the Taliban and former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country.
Scenes of Afghans attempting to board airplanes at Kabul International Airport with their families, some of whom lost their lives, were reminiscent of similar scenes during the last days of the Vietnam War in the 1970s when US forces and their South Vietnamese allies attempted to rapidly withdraw from Saigon, which fell to North Vietnamese forces.
The cost of Biden’s backing down against either China or Russia will be staggering politically for him and the US. At the same time, the costs of engaging in military conflict with these countries would be equally staggering and also have ramifications for the rest of the world.
Added to these geopolitical problems were the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. While some countries such as Egypt and China managed to weather the economic storm that accompanied the global spread of the coronavirus, the economic effects of the pandemic hit most countries’ economies hard.
It was felt hardest in countries such as Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Turkey. Sri Lanka is reported to be on the brink of bankruptcy. Lebanon is in no better shape, as its once proud lira currency is now valued at 30,000 against the dollar, rendering the cost of living almost unbearable. Power shortages and blackouts have become the norm in the country, and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel of the Lebanese crisis.
The Turkish economy also suffered massively in 2021, and things were exacerbated after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to cut interest rates and adopt what he described as an “Islamic model” of banking. The plan backfired, and the Turkish lira tumbled to its lowest ever rate in two decades last December before the Central Bank of Turkey massively intervened. Even so, the gains resulting from this intervention quickly eroded and were accompanied by the highest official inflation rate recorded in decades at 36 per cent.
Dark skies still lie ahead in 2022 as a result of the coronavirus and its never-ending mutations. The ramifications are poised to get worse before they get better, but with the new medications that are appearing there is some hope of a better year. However, these medications are still in their trial phase, and it will take time for them to be available in all countries.
The spectre of a potential war over Ukraine between the two superpowers is not something to be trifled with, since both the Russian and US sides do not see any political benefits in backing down and they both feel that they are in the right. 2022 is a year that carries with it the baggage of yesteryears, and it will be decisive for how the world shapes up over the next few decades.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.