I HAVE WRITTEN regularly about the impact of covid-19 on domestic inequalities. I have also noted the contrast between the UK and the EU. But the wider international impacts are yet more stark, a fact highlighted by what UN secretary general António Guterres calls the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of vaccines.
So far, a mere ten countries account for an astonishing 75 percent of global vaccinations. 130 countries have received not yet received a single dose. “Vaccine equality,” he observes, “is the biggest moral test before the global community”.
The World Bank was already forecasting that events would push a “truly unprecedented” 88 to 115 million people into extreme poverty. This month, they updated that figure to between 119 and 124 million. The International Labour Organisation also observes that workers have lost $3.7 trillion in earnings during the pandemic. Estimates suggest that, while there will be some recovery, half of the increase in poverty will be permanent due to the mixture of lost earnings, unemployment and social service cuts. Aid reductions from the richer nations will be a further challenge.
“While the pandemic has revealed the enormous cleavages across the countries of the world, the pandemic itself is likely to increase disparities, leaving long-lasting scars, unless there is a greater demonstration of global and national solidarity,” notes Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist.
Vaccine inequality will thus heap misery on misery. Driven by panic and a sense of impending economic doom, the process reflects the twin emergency logics of anarchic market forces and brute state power. Those leaping to freedom first will thus be those who exert the greatest force.
The rhetoric of “recovery” will dominate our election in Scotland and the global discourse. But that choice of word poses its own risks of a step backwards. Returning to pre-pandemic normality looks neither possible nor desirable. The coronavirus ran through the cracks of economic, social and health systems allowed to decay due to decades of policy biases. Simply letting the market rip isn’t an option.
More than anything else, the coronavirus has exposed our metabolism with nature, and how vulnerable this can make our jet-setting global order. History might thus record the lockdowns as mere preparations for the challenges of climate change. And environmental risks and protections will also reflect the uneven development of our planet. Long forgotten issues of global injustice are at our doorstep, and panicked responses are just storing up problems for the future. The situation demands rational economic planning and a struggle to redistribute power and income on a planetary scale.