At this point, most of us are aware of the far-reaching impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of this writing, Covid-19 has killed over 850,000 people around the world, and it’s a health crisis that has set off a chain reaction of calamities in other sectors. When governments implemented necessary policies to stop the spread of the virus, people retreated from public life. Borders were closed, flights canceled, schools and offices shuttered. A health crisis became an economic crisis, an educational crisis, and so on.
It’s even spawned additional public health issues, as people avoid checkups and routine care. Vaccines, for example, are considered a proxy measure for how well a health care system is functioning. During the pandemic, global vaccine coverage dropped from 84 to 70 percent, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). It’s a low not seen since the 1990s.
Further evidence of this chain reaction can be seen in the arrested progress of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a group of interconnected objectives — such as ending poverty and hunger and increasing access to health care and clean water — the organization hopes to accomplish by 2030. Each year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation tracks the world’s progress toward these goals in its Goalkeepers Report. While it always points out areas where there could be improvement, it’s usually happy to announce headway has been made on all goals; however, 2020 looks very different. The report estimates the world community has regressed on nearly all of the 18 indicators it tracks each year.
Ahead, we highlight three key takeaways from the report. They show not only where the world is moving in the wrong direction, but also the right one — and how we can end the pandemic and resume progress on the United Nations’ SDGs as expediently as possible.
The financial crisis will not end with the pandemic for everyone
Necessary measures designed to stop the virus’ spread plunged the world into the worst recession since the end of World War II, a financial retraction that’s twice as bad as the Great Recession in 2007-09. Countries poured a collective $18 trillion into their economies, but poorer nations could not afford major stimulus packages.
“The amount of resources you have govern what kind of response you’re able to mount to Covid,” says Vishal Gujadhur, who works on the Development Policy and Finance team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “G20 countries spent over 20 percent of GDP in their emergency measures, whereas developing countries spent about 3 percent.”
Now, the IHME estimates extreme poverty has increased by 7 percent in 2020 — the first increase in 20 years. Thirty-seven million people have fallen below the extreme poverty line ($1.90 per day in lower-middle income countries) so far this year, and 68 million have fallen below the poverty line ($3.20 per day).
Women are more likely than men to be among the newly poor, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where they tend to work in people’s homes and other places the pandemic has made less accessible. This is compounded by existing inequities in the division of domestic labor. With children home from school and more sick relatives to care for, women have found themselves with even more responsibilities at home.
But while the pandemic has taken a greater economic toll on developing countries and vulnerable communities, there are signs of hope — in low- and middle-income nations coming together to mount an economic response to the pandemic, and in efforts to ensure an eventual vaccine is distributed equitably among all nations.
Lower-income countries are innovating in the financial sector
One place the world is seeing progress is in low- and middle-income countries, where some of the most vulnerable people live. In Nigeria, more than 100 private-sector partners created the Coalition Against Covid (CACOVID). So far, they’ve raised $80 million to bolster the government’s response. Other developing countries have created technologies to transfer cash to people, and the World Bank estimates 131 countries have either implemented programs or expanded existing ones since February. All together, the measure is estimated to have reached 1.1 billion people.
The West African Economic and Monetary Union, an eight-country financial community, has sped up the process of opening a bank account. It now allows residents to do it via text message and then follows up to verify their identity within three months. The switch has allowed more than 8 million West Africans to open an account while in lockdown.
India, which had a digital identity and payment system in place before the pandemic, was able to transfer cash to 200 million women soon after the pandemic hit. It’s not only allowed the country to avoid an increase in hunger and poverty, but also advanced its long-term goal of empowering women by including them in the economy.
A vaccine is coming — but it must be distributed equitably
How fast the global economy can bounce back is the question everyone would like an answer to. It’s now clear that the vaccine which will end the pandemic will also be the key to economic recovery. But to do so, it is critical that the vaccine be distributed equitably across the globe.
Right now, countries have bet on a few pharmaceutical companies and locked in supply for only their own populations; however, only 7 percent of vaccines in the early stages of testing go on to be approved. Some countries will win these bets, but they cannot have a winner-take-all mentality. Reserving doses for one country, or even a few, will only lengthen the pandemic.
“If there’s only one billion doses of vaccine next year, that’s not enough for everyone, even in high-income countries,” says Gujadhur. “By the end of 2021, the pandemic could be behind us for a lot of countries. And the question is how many? Is that just 10 countries that have it behind them? Or is it 60, 80, 100?”
The Goalkeepers Report calls for every entity in the international financial system — governments, businesses, and development banks — to mount a cohesive response to ending the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not yet clear if the world can organize that kind of collaborative response, but there are reasons to be optimistic. In the spring, the Access to Covid-19 Accelerator (ACT-A) was launched in response to a call from G20 leaders to mobilize an equitable response to the pandemic. It has partnered with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), an organization that has invested in nine vaccines, and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, which helps to buy and distribute vaccines to lower-income countries.
“CEPI has the largest portfolio in the world, with nine vaccines it’s investing in. So it’s maximizing the chances that we’re going to have a successful vaccine that is really effective,” says Gujadhur. “And the UK and the US have invested in so many vaccines that they probably have enough for everyone in their country and then be able to donate to other countries as well.”
The good news is this best-case scenario is still within reach. “It’s not a fantasy, but it’s not a foregone conclusion,” says Gujadhur. “It requires hard work, political leadership and thinking beyond the bounds of your country.”
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everything and everyone is connected. While the world community faces significant challenges in mounting a response, it’s clear that to end the pandemic’s devastating health and economic effects, our solutions must also be global, interconnected, and fairly distributed to all.