Spanish flu is something closer to what today's pandemic, and if one takes the 1918 devastating virus outbreak as the yardstick, then they should fret about 2021 because the impact of the flu that started 100 years ago dragged on for three long years.
Within a gap of only two decades since the flu pandemic, the Great Economic Depression and World War II again shocked the entire world causing numerous deaths and untold economic hardship to people.
But, this time around, there are many good things, from fighting the deadly virus to the economic recovery, to be hopeful about the New Year and years to come.
Take one by one.
The first and most important thing is development of vaccines – an effective armour to win the battle against the deadly Covid-19 virus. Advanced technology helped scientists to reach the milestone at an unimaginable speed.
At least four of the jabs are in use already after approval while dozens others are under development. Large-scale vaccination will begin in the New Year. This is an unprecedented success in human history that sparks hope for faster economic recovery from the damage caused by the Covid-19.
People battling the Spanish flu were not as lucky. No vaccine could be developed to defeat the flu virus.
Moreover, the flu virus hit the world at a time when its population was already devastated by the First World War that killed more than nine million people.
In the next two decades the world experienced two more catastrophes - the Great Economic Depression and then the Second World War.
The world successfully minimised the risk of Third World War in the last seven decades thanks to the birth of the United Nations and the world's biggest supranational union, the EU. Now the fear of the Third World War is not that pressing.
The way the world has demonstrated administrative efficiency this time to contain the spread of the virus was not possible during Spanish flu although the world of 1918 was far less globalised than the world of 2020.
The world of 2020 is much more connected and equipped with advanced technologies and medical care resulting in far less death from Covid-19 than from the Spanish flu.
An estimated 40 million people, or 2.1% of the global population, died in the flu pandemic.
As of now, 1.72 million people died of Covid-19 which is only .022% of the global population.
A hundred years back, people of the South Asian countries were helpless. They were worst hit by the Spanish flu that killed some 18 million of them, the death toll was higher than any other part of the world. They had to experience another catastrophe – the Bengal famine of 1943 that killed up to three million people.
This time around the situation is not so worrisome.
The death rate from coronavirus in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and other Asian countries is much lower compared to those of Europe and the USA despite their strong health care systems.
The low death rate in South Asian countries with poor health care systems still remains a paradox.
South Asian countries have reduced hunger to a large extent. Farmers – the unsung heroes – have produced plenty of food grains putting to rest the fear of another famine.
There are more good reasons to be optimistic.
Asia has been fighting the virus better than Europe and America. The administrative steps taken by some Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan to tame the virus have become examples for others.
This has been reflected in the latest Bloomberg Health-Efficiency Index that says as a pandemic ravaged the world, Asian economies led by Hong Kong and Singapore topped a ranking of most-efficient health care systems.
The index, first published in 2013, tracks life expectancy and medical spending to determine which health-care systems have the best outcomes. This year's results include the impact of Covid-19 on mortality and gross domestic product in 57 of the world's largest economies.
These measures helped many Asian territories improve their standing on the list since their generally aggressive coronavirus responses kept cases and deaths relatively low. Brazil and Russia joined the US in the bottom tier, reflecting relatively low life expectancies along with high Covid-19 mortality and weaker economic outlooks, says Bloomberg.
A few months ago the outlook was gloomy.
While the virus was rampaging throughout Asia, Europe and America, countries closed their borders one-by-one, going into unprecedented lockdowns that they had hoped to avoid. The World Bank, the IMF and other economic think tanks were forecasting a bleak future for the global economy.
At a time when America and Europe are still struggling to tame the virus, the success in fighting the virus brightened the economic outlook for Asia.
Asian firms turned most optimistic in the fourth quarter of 2020, as business activity picked up in the region, shows a recent Thomson Reuters/INSEAD survey.
The global growth engine China, the second largest global economy, is recovering faster than other major economies including the world's biggest economy USA, consolidating its position in global affairs.
A prominent Asian scholar, Kishore Mahbubani, says, "...history has turned a corner. The era of Western domination is ending. The resurgence of Asia in world affairs and the global economy, which was happening before the emergence of covid-19, will be cemented in a new world order after the crisis."
The outlook for Bangladesh now looks bright too.
Its economy registered over 5% growth in the last financial year at a time when many economies experienced contraction. This trend looks set to continue in the New Year as the Asian Development Bank projected strong economic recovery for Bangladesh in FY21 with the economy expected to grow by 6.8% riding on strong manufacturing and exports.
The resurgence of Asia in global affairs will increase the significance of Dhaka further in the coming years as underlined by the Japanese Ambassador to Dhaka Ito Naoki, who said Bangladesh's strategic location will play a more important role in integrating the market and supply chain in Asia and beyond.
The most important things the government needs to focus on are removing roadblocks such as uncertainty over vaccination and a slow moving administration. All signs suggest that Covid will not suddenly disappear. It is certain that we will have to live with the virus in the new year, too. So, there is no alternative to strengthening the administrative efficiency and, of course, health care to efficiently overcome any hurdles to grasp the opportunity for an economic and social reset. The return of students to classrooms must be ensured as early as possible in 2021.
Lastly, the defeat of Donald Trump during the pandemic appears as good news for climate change and will contribute to reshaping the new world order for good in the new year.
One thing is for sure that 2021 will offer us something better than a dreadful 2020. And we are beginning the new year better than many other developed countries in Europe and America where the virus is still rampaging.
So, let the hopes soar high against all odds and uncertainties.
Shakhawat Liton is deputy executive editor at The Business Standard