By Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of HIV, Health and Development, UNDP, and Laurel Patterson, Head of SDG Integration, UNDP.
As the highly transmissible Delta variant drives new COVID-19 infections and restrictions around the world, social and economic fallout from the pandemic is looming ever larger for low and middle-income countries. Across Malaysia, low-income families are raising white flags outside their homes to signal their need for food and other essentials while they remain out of work because of the country’s fourth lockdown. Meanwhile the vaccines needed to protect vulnerable populations remain concentrated in the hands of the world’s wealthiest nations, compounding loss of life and inequalities and leaving these families to face the pandemic’s impact for years to come.
Equitable access is key to ending the pandemic, protecting vulnerable communities and people and getting development back on track. But the numbers are striking: low-income countries have been able to vaccinate just 1.32 percent of their populations, compared to 50.15 percent in high-income countries. In a sign of how deep the inequities run, billions of people in low-income countries are awaiting their first doses even as plans are being discussed to develop and roll out 800 million booster shots in high-income countries
To address this injustice, we must understand and act on the challenge of COVID-19 vaccine accessibility as well as the multidimensional impacts of vaccine inequity.
The Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, a joint initiative from UNDP, WHO and the University of Oxford, illustrates the complex problem of vaccine inequity by using the latest multidimensional data on the vaccine rollout. Its insights demonstrate the need for a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to addressing the challenge, empowering stakeholders and policymakers to take evidence-based action towards driving a sustainable global recovery from a pandemic that has now claimed more than four million lives.
While high-income countries only have to increase their healthcare spending by about 0.8 percent to vaccinate 70 percent of their population, low-income countries will have to increase their spending by 57 percent to reach the same level of protection, potentially resulting in mounting levels of public debt. Algeria and Mozambique face projected debt increases of US$567 million and US$314 million, respectively.
Without urgent support low-income countries will continue to face the economic impact of COVID-19 over the course this decisive decade. This includes a significant decline in the earnings of the two billion people who make up the informal workforce, where many people, the majority of whom are women, reside in low-income countries. In 2020, informal workers suffered a 60 percent decrease in their earnings. Job opportunities for many in low and middle-income countries remain limited, suppressed by low vaccination rates that necessitate lockdown measures. Combined with low rates of social protection, vulnerable groups will continue to bear the brunt of the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Powered by the dashboard’s comprehensive data as an evidence based advocacy and policy tool, we can take action today to boost access of COVID-19 vaccines towards the goal of 70 percent vaccination of the population in every country by the first half of 2022. COVAX has made progress delivering vaccine doses to countries most in need, but requires collective action to reach its goal of delivering 1.8 billion vaccine doses to 92 low-income countries by early 2022. Manufacturers should complement these efforts by sharing knowledge and know how to accelerate and expand vaccine production, especially in low- and middle income countries, while also lowering the cost of vaccines.
A fairer, faster and sustainable recovery from COVID-19 is within our reach. With the insights powered by the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, we have the evidence base to act and protect the lives and livelihoods of millions.