There is no one on the planet who remains unaffected by COVID-19. In just a little over four months, the virus has grown from a cluster in one Chinese city to affect every corner of the Earth, from the world’s largest cities to indigenous communities in the Amazon. Every country has at least some cases, except for a few small island nations that have cut off all travel—but even they are suffering the resulting economic shock. As of early April, more than 81 percent of the world’s workers were in countries with full or partial economic shutdowns to contain the virus. We may not yet know how the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus will stack up to previous disasters, how the economic fallout will compare to previous recessions, or what the last political impact will be. But one milestone is becoming clearer: COVID-19 is likely to be remembered as the first truly global event in human history.
“Global event,” in this case, means a distinct occurrence that will be a significant life event for nearly every person on the planet. This is not to say that we’re all experiencing it the same way. Some become ill or lose loved ones; others lose jobs or livelihoods; for others, it’s merely a source of inconvenience or anxiety. And different countries and local governments are responding to the crisis in very different fashions, leading to wildly divergent outcomes for their citizens. But as the writer Anna Badkhen puts it, not since human beings first began spreading across the globe has a single event “affected everyone, on every continent, as instantly and intimately and acutely as the spread of coronavirus, uniting us as we fear and think and hope about the same thing.” It’s the truly global nature of the crisis that French President Emmanuel Macron was referring to when he called the coronavirus an “anthropological” shock.
This truth says as much about the era in which COVID-19 emerged as it does about the virus itself. It was only in the past 500 years that people in all regions of the Earth even became fully aware of one another and in the last 200 that they’ve been able to communicate more or less instantaneously. And it’s this very interconnectedness that allowed the virus to spread so rapidly across the globe. (The Black Death felt like the end of the world to many who experienced it, but more than a century before Columbus, entire continents of people were unaware of it.)
Previous events have had global impact in the past. Billions of lives have been affected by, say, the French Revolution, or 9/11. Contemporaneous writers have made cases for various events as the “shot heard round the world” or Ten Days That Shook the World. But these events were not experienced by the entire world at the same time—not even close.
In the 20th century, some events came close. World War II had a global economic and political impact, even in countries that didn’t take direct part in the fighting, but it didn’t dominate public life in much of Africa or Latin America to nearly the same extent as the pandemic. While it was going on, a significant portion of the world’s population could probably go days or at least hours without thinking about it.
The 1918 flu pandemic reached every region of the world but, in part because of wartime information restrictions, was not fully understood as a global event while it was happening. At a time when deaths from infections disease were more common, the extent of the devastation was clear only in retrospect. It left a surprisingly faint cultural impact. By contrast, can you imagine a future book or movie set anywhere in the world in the spring of 2020 that omits mention of the pandemic?
There’s another universal crisis looming over all of our lives: climate change. But the long-term environmental catastrophe is too amorphous to be considered a single event. The philosopher Timothy Morton has coined the term “hyperobject” for phenomena like climate change, things that are too “massively distributed in time and space” for humans to get a mental grip on.
The coronavirus, by contrast, is unique in both its time frame and ubiquity. It’s happening now and it’s happening to everyone.
What’s the significance of this? Well, anyone hoping that a universal threat would result in humankind uniting to overcome their conflicts has been disappointed thus far. If anything, despite the fact that every person on the planet is dealing with the same thing right now, the political institutions are even more fractured than before.
Perhaps a more realistic expectations is that people may change how they view far away events—events like a mysterious virus cluster in Wuhan. Those of us who write about world news are used to making the case that people should care about events that happen in other countries and continents because it could eventually affect them—that political developments in Russia or a drought in Central America can very quickly become a major event in American life. Perhaps after the common experience we’ve all just shared, it will be a little easier to grasp the importance of faraway wars, revolutions, famines, and even “massively distributed” problems like climate change, feel a little more empathy for those directly affected by them, and have a little better sense of how they might soon affect us. For the first time ever, it feels like it’s literally true to say that international news is just news that hasn’t become local yet.