Covid-19 Is Thwarting Progress on Poverty and Inequality

By Abby Schultz

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual report on how much progress the world is making toward tackling the UN Sustainable Development Goals paints a somber picture of rising inequality and poverty in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“One of the most troubling things about this pandemic is that by disrupting health systems and the global economy, it’s starting to erase the progress people have made toward living healthier, more productive lives,” Melinda Gates said in a news release announcing the results of the 2020 Goalkeepers Report. 

To reverse these ominous trends, the foundation is calling for a global collaborative approach focused on ending the pandemic. 

“Ultimately, businesses and governments must really believe that the future is not a zero-sum contest in which winners win only when losers lose,” according to the report. “It is a cooperative endeavor in which we all make progress together.”

In short order this year, the pandemic has created immense challenges across the globe—particularly for vulnerable populations. 

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a data firm that partners with the Gates Foundation, estimates Covid-19 has caused extreme poverty to rise by seven percent, “ending a 20-year streak of progress,” according to the report, which is in its fourth year.

Also worrisome is that global vaccine coverage has dropped to 1990s levels. “We’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks,” it said.

The only way to reverse these trends, and renew efforts to address such UN goals as “no poverty,” “quality education,” and “clean water and sanitation,” is to deal with the pandemic.

“We cannot rebuild health systems, economic systems, educational systems, and food systems—to say nothing of making them better than they were when this year began—until the virus that is tearing them all down is under control,” the report said. 

To do that requires a multi-pronged collaborative response directed at three tasks: developing diagnostics and treatments; manufacturing “as many tests and doses as we can, as fast as we can”; and delivering these tests and treatments “equitably to those who need them most, no matter where they live or how much money they have,” according to the report. 

On the vaccine response, the Gates Foundation emphasizes the importance of pursuing as many options as possible. One reason is that it takes a lot of research and development before a vaccine is considered safe and effective. 

The probability of success is only 7% during early-stage vaccine testing and 17% once humans are involved, the report said. To minimize the risk, the foundation argues that countries should invest jointly “in a large portfolio of candidates.” 

The report also notes that making vaccines is one of the “most under-the-radar challenges the world faces,” and that currently, the necessary manufacturing capacity simply doesn’t exist. 

Once successful vaccines are created and manufactured, it’s critical that they are distributed equitably. The report warns that if countries hoard vaccines for their own populations, that will only lengthen the pandemic. 

Research from Northeastern University finds “if rich countries buy up the first two billion doses of vaccine instead of making sure they are distributed in proportion to the global population, then almost twice as many people could die from Covid-19,” the report said. 

One way the foundation hopes to avoid this problem by having vaccines created by one company made at the same time by other companies, Bill Gates said during a conference call ahead of the report’s release. 

A number of alliances the foundation is working on, for instance, bring together Western vaccine manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax, with Indian manufacturers, like the Serum Institute of India, in an effort to widen the base for manufacturing and distribution, Gates said. 

One collaborative effort Gates champions is the Access to Covid-19 Accelerator (ACT-A), formed by organizations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)—a three-year-old global public-private philanthropic partnership founded to develop vaccines against emerging infectious disease—and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. CEPI is working on nine vaccine candidates to prevent Covid-19, while Gavi’s focus is on vaccine distribution in low-and-middle income countries. 

But this effort needs vast sums of money to be effective—a cost, Gates argues, that is as essential to fund as the US$18 trillion in economic stimulus funds already outlayed by governments.

“Every single month, the global economy loses US$500 billion,” the report said. “A collaborative approach will shave many months off the world’s timeline.”


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