By Charlotte Service
Over the course of the pandemic, a substantial amount of economic decline has been experienced by many, if not all, countries. The seemingly everlasting presence of Covid – in keeping with the emergence of the new Omicron variant – has made it hard to contemplate when the virus might actually start to become problem of the past, instead of an issue which continues to dominate the present. However, things do seem to be finally looking up, with new research confirming that Omicron is significantly milder than previous variants in spite of being more transmissible. Yet, whilst it appears that the severity of Covid itself might be starting to die down for the vaccinated, the grossly unequal economic consequences of the pandemic are becoming more and more apparent.
Over the past two and a half years, life has been largely dictated by the lockdown rules and regulations imposed by governments. Since the very beginning, politicians have been at the forefront of the pandemic, permeating the news with speeches and declarations about their country’s next move. However, by focusing on the preservation of countries on an individual level, most governments have missed the bigger picture – if the pandemic is a global problem, how can we expect to address it on a national level without any consideration for the rest of the world? Over time, political decisions regarding the virus have also appeared to become less influenced by the scientific facts, and much more so by politics itself. The approach of the Western world to the pandemic is futile, as well as selfish, but it is the consequences for the poorer nations that are of the most concern.
Some blame the low rates of vaccination in Africa on the hesitancy of the population to have their jabs, either resulting from a lack of trust in the government or uncertainty about the calibre of the vaccines being distributed. Though this may well be a factor, the continent’s lack of supply and access to vaccines is predominantly the reason that ‘less than eight per cent of the total 1.3bn population is fully vaccinated’. The delivery of vaccinations to poorer nations could be central to realising the end of the pandemic, but so far it is a long way from being prioritised. Richer nations have acquired and held onto vaccines in excess, many of which will never see the light of day, which has meant that poorer parts of the world have been unfairly and unnecessarily prohibited from accessing the vaccinations that they need.
The shortage of vaccines in Africa is now being described as the “vaccine apartheid”, but the volume of supply itself is not the only problem. IMF’s head of global health and pandemic response task force has claimed that “Predictability and sufficient shelf life of dose donations translate into lives saved and a quicker economic rebound”. Yet, the majority of affluent nations who do eventually make vaccine donations choose to flog erratic quantities of doses at the last minute. Short notice and inconsistent provision make it almost impossible to dish out the vaccines effectively to those in need, especially when most of the vaccines supplied are close to the date of their expiration. Even the larger and more wealthy African nations say that often the ‘transaction costs are too high’ for the volume of vaccines available to them. There is also the issue that the perceived to be undesirable vaccines, namely AstraZeneca, are being dumped on the continent, with Pfizer making up ‘less than 3 percent’ of the doses donated to Africa.
Even with an increase in vaccine availability across Africa, whether it is pragmatic of health officials to direct resources towards covid jabs is up for debate. The World Health Organisation aims to have had all countries ‘vaccinate 70% of their total populations by mid-2022’. However, the median age across sub-Saharan Africa is ‘less than 20’, and it has been questioned if emergency syringe supplies should be used for covid vaccines over jabs for diseases such as measles and tetanus from which the majority of the population is more at risk of dying. Equally, there seems to be evidence that the virus has already swept through much of Africa, meaning that there is a level natural immunity built up within the population. Hospital admissions from Covid sufferers are also rare, likely explained by average age and low levels of obesity in the population. Equally, studies have shown that coronavirus appears to be less severe in those who have previously suffered from malaria. Despite all of this, regardless of whether the WHO’s vaccination target should be prioritised by Africa, the continent will be unlikely to reach it under the current circumstances.
Ease of access to vaccines is not the only pandemic luxury that higher-income countries have indulged in over the past two and a half years. Policies and restrictions to stop the spread of Coronavirus have been implemented left, right and centre across the Western world, but such constraints are not something that much of Africa has had the power to implement, let alone afford.
One of the most significant of these luxuries is the ability to restrict foreign entry into one’s country. Politicians are now starting to accept that the virus is not something that can be contained, particularly following the emergence of the more transmissible Omicron variant. The traffic light travel lists have recently been deemed largely ineffective when it comes to stopping the spread of covid, prompting the removal of many nations from the so-called ‘Red List’. Yet, many argue that the initial decisions of nations to place countries on the red list were taken rather lightly.
The 11 nations most recently added, and subsequently removed, from the U.K.’s red list, were all African countries. The addition followed the news of the new variant, but it was a rather peculiar thank you to the South African authorities who were the first to make-known Omicron to the world. It would have perhaps been justified had research confirmed that Africa was the source of the variant, but this was not the case; there were already low cases of infection across the continent, and little was known about the origin or severity of the new strain. The travel measures implicated were impulsive, and though quickly reversed, they were fated to have damaging economic consequences for each of the respective countries.
Though perhaps restricting foreign entry is something that the Western world may be able to afford, much of Africa is made up of countries with tourist dependent economies, and travel restrictions stand to annihilate their main source of income. Putting countries on the red list has an impact detrimental to the travel industry, leading to mass holiday cancellations and dissuading consumers from even considering going abroad. The pandemic has already created widespread macroeconomic uncertainty and with interest rates set to rise, poorer countries with already volatile economies currently have no hopes of achieving stable growth.
The privilege discrepancy between poor and rich countries is clearer than it has been for a long time. While countries such as ‘Uganda and Mozambique are experiencing increasing levels of poverty and inequality’, with much of their previous economic progress entirely eradicated by the pandemic, the more affluent countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. sit comfortable knowing they are blessed with a government that has the power to implement economic safety nets. In Africa, workers cannot afford to sit at home and isolate because they have no government to support them while they do so. Financing months of furlough for millions of workers is a mere impossibility for African countries, not to mention something that many governments would be unlikely to even consider. The ability to generate money from thin air is not likely to come without economic repercussion, but the point is that only the wealthier countries have this option.
The social impact of the pandemic must also be considered. Mental health has plummeted around the world and suicide rates have sky-rocketed, but the less developed nations have additional social problems to deal with. An unstable economy means unstable employment, diminishing the income of families across Africa. ‘Women and girls are bearing the brunt of the problems’, forced to leave school to help support their family, be it through work or an early marriage. Besides the increasing gender inequality and the widening of the education gap, gender-based violence in Africa has also risen since the pandemic began. All of this is going to have a negative effect on growth in the long run – if a country cannot produce a cosmopolitan and educated workforce, it has no hopes of prospering on any level.
Though all these problems cannot be fixed directly by the richer countries, aiding the economic recovery of Africa will undoubtedly help to put nations on the right track. The Western world cannot go on to make isolated choices solely based on satisfying their own interests. The consequences of the pandemic for each country, and the restrictions that have come along with it, are not the same. Wealthier nations need to look at the situation with a greater awareness, as much for their own benefit as others, because if the virus is not dealt with on a global level, it is not dealt with at all. Further travel bans aren’t an option for Africa; it needs tourism to stimulate and kick-start economies again. Frequent and random changes to regulations are not sustainable; they destroy economic confidence, making recovery impossible.
The more affluent countries need to realise that they have the power to support poorer nations, but more importantly that they have a responsibility to do so. Political decisions should have no disproportionate or negative impact on poorer countries, especially those mainly brought about because politicians want somewhere to lay the blame. Reversing the economic depredation won’t be easy – it might not even be possible – but more global inclusivity and consideration of others when it comes to policymaking is a step in the right direction. Asymmetric travel restrictions must be lifted, and the vaccine must be distributed in a more fair and feasible manner. Otherwise, we risk fuelling a further widening of the gap between the developed and the developing world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.