Since the beginning of this year, analysts have drawn attention to several multi-dimensional factors that have seriously impacted the world in more ways than one. They have correctly pointed out that the pandemic and its mutated variants have changed socio-economic expectations and created paradigms which are casting long shadows on our lives.
Farhana Haque Rahman, a media specialist, has observed interestingly that in 2020 the world mourned the officially reported deaths of some 1.8 million people from Covid-19, but by the end of 2021 the death toll had risen to over 5.3 million. It has also been hinted that the true figure could actually be even more, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In this context, it has been acknowledged that scientists have made extraordinary breakthroughs in quickly developing vaccines that have shown considerable efficacy in fighting the virus. However, while some countries had double jabbed over 70 per cent of their citizens and were pushing boosters, less than 8.0 per cent of Africa's 1.3 billion people had been vaccinated at all. This disparity has led to poorer countries and sectors suffering disproportionately through rising poverty and inequality as years of development gains may have been compromised. This scenario has had its own ramifications.
It may be pointed out that UNICEF has termed the pandemic and its evolving varieties as being the biggest crisis for children in their 75-year history, with 100 million having fallen into poverty. This dynamic has partially worsened because richer countries have focused more on their own national interests. Unfortunately, most of the G-7 countries have prioritized the profits of their own pharmaceutical companies by opposing the intellectual property waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) or hoarding vaccines.
With the Omicron variant, countries like France and the United States (US) are reporting their highest number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic, despite having vaccines in abundance. At the same time, there is a real anxiety in countries that have been denied access to vaccines through the 'complicity' of the world's wealthiest nations that this is the wave that will break through their meagre defences and the cycle of lockdowns and travel bans they have been depending on.
This whole situation has taken a grim turn in the recent past with the pandemic spreading across the world fuelled by the highly contagious Omicron variety. Every day has seen more than a million persons affected- spread over the USA, the UK, Europe and India. The strain was first detected in late November in South Africa and has since then spread speedily throughout the world. The sheer numbers are causing concern. There is also need to point out that the US accounts for approximately 4.0 per cent of the world's population but about 15 per cent of the nearly 6 million known deaths from the coronavirus since it emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. Some health experts have been pointing out that Omicron is milder, and not as severe as the Delta variant. Nevertheless, as is becoming evident, the patient numbers in hospitals have been going up.
The WHO has warned that half of Europe may be infected with the Omicron Covid variant within the next six to eight weeks. At this moment a "west-to-east tidal wave" of Omicron is sweeping across the region, on top of a surge in the Delta variant. This projection has been based on the seven million new cases reported across Europe in the first week of 2022. The European and Central Asian countries remain under "intense pressure" as the virus is spreading from western countries into the Balkans. The WHO has warned that future developments in this regard will be determined by how each country responds to its epidemiological situation, available resources, vaccination uptake status and socio-economic context.
Udaya Regmi, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in South Asia has also cautioned that the Omicron is threatening to overwhelm South Asia's health systems- from India to Nepal and Bangladesh. Everywhere hospitals are reporting "alarming increases" in infections, including a very high percentage increase in India in the past month. Consequently, this latest surge of Covid-19 spells immense danger for millions of people and health systems across South Asia. Omicron is spreading fast despite steady increase in vaccination rates.
It is necessary at this point to refer to the significant comment made by famous US physician Dr Anthony Fauci- "Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody. Those who have been vaccinated ... and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death. In contrast, those who are not vaccinated are going to get the brunt of the severe aspect of this."
Ben Phillips, an Advisor to the United Nations(UN) has been critical in his recent observations on this issue. He has stated that "as the Omicron surge overwhelms the world, it is clear to people everywhere that the actions which leaders have so far have taken in response to the Covid-19 crisis have not been sufficient to overcome it". It has been suggested that during such a Pandemic emergency, every country needs to deploy the whole range of tools that they have within their arsenal- in a coordinated manner. He has correctly emphasized that it is vital to share doses of vaccines as a solution but it is also essential to share the technology so that multiple producers across the world can simultaneously manufacture enough to vaccinate the world. Public health Professors Madhukar Pai of McGill and Manu Prakash of Stanford have also noted that "Science has delivered many tools that work against Covid-19. However, equitable distribution of these tools is where we are failing".
This evolving scenario is creating its own serious effect within the matrix of poverty. Thalif Deen has referred to the spreading Pandemic and has observed that "the UN's highly-ambitious goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 has been severely undermined by a rash of problems worldwide, including an escalating coronavirus pandemic, continued widespread military conflicts and the devastating impact of climate change." Incidentally, a World Bank report, which was updated last October, has underlined that about 100 million additional people are now living in poverty as a direct result of the pandemic.
It may be noted here that since 1998, for almost 25 years, extreme poverty, the first of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), had been steadily declining. However, now a generation later, the effort to end poverty has suffered a setback. Sir Richard Jolly of the Institute of Development Studies has also observed that multidimensional poverty is on the rise. This appears to be particularly true in some parts of Latin America, Africa and South Asia. There is ample evidence of this in the impact that is being generated in terms of life expectancy, access to education and incomes among the poorer sections of the society. The pandemic has also "laid bare" challenges in terms of- structural inequalities, inadequate healthcare, and the lack of social protection. This dynamic has led many socio-economists to suggest that SDG-1 on reducing poverty might not be achieved by 2030 without major policy changes. Similarly, there is the possibility that there will be less chance of reducing inequalities as expected within the framework of SDG-10.
Vicente Paolo Yu, Senior Legal Adviser at the Third World Network has interestingly mentioned in this regard that global poverty and inequality exist not because people are not hard working in their own homes and communities but because of the way that the global economic, financial, and trade system continues to make it more difficult for poor peoples and countries to get out of poverty. In this regard it has been stated that developing countries that have recently managed to succeed in cutting poverty have been those that have implemented diverse development policies.
Yu also feels that- "failing to act together as a common human community on all fronts on poverty and inequality" has contributed also to the different impacts related to climate change, biodiversity loss and the pandemic. This has apparently also led to the denial of human choices and opportunities, violations of human rights and human dignity, enhanced human insecurity and exclusion of many communities.
One needs to agree with this -without equity and justice, poverty can only spread further within this osmotic diagram during 2022.
It would also be fitting to refer to another aspect- climate change that is slowly becoming the defining crisis of our time. It is a human catastrophe that is making life harder for millions of people and having a disproportionate impact..
The UNHCR has correctly pointed out that disaster displacement has been one of its most devastating consequences. This has led to entire populations not only suffering impacts in general, but vulnerable people living in some of the most fragile and conflict-affected countries being "often disproportionately affected."
One has to agree with this as refugees, internally displaced people and the stateless are on the frontlines of the climate emergency. Many amongst the affected are also living in climate "hotspots", where they typically lack the resources to adapt to an increasingly hostile environment and also receive the necessary vaccination support and healthcare facilities that need to be provided during the current Pandemic manifested scenario.
We need to understand all over the world, particularly the developed countries, that, both the factors that have been dealt with above are threat multipliers that do not believe in borders or require visas to travel.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.