Covid-19: The twenty-first century’s Chernobyl moment

Whoever repairs today’s fracturing international landscape will secure the power and influence to reset the post-pandemic world order to their liking

Présidence de la République du Bénin CC BY-NC-ND

Covid-19 is the twenty-first century’s Chernobyl moment – a catastrophe so significant it must force us to wake up and rethink our priorities. So said The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response this month. And yet, throughout the crisis, the piecemeal nature of the United States’ and the European Union’s engagement with the rest of the world has fallen far short of the commitment now needed. While the phrase “nobody is safe until everyone is safe” has passed the lips of many leaders, the reality of their actions has exacerbated inequalities, undermined the effectiveness of the pandemic response, and left the field open for China to further build economic and diplomatic influence, particularly in Africa.

A tale of two pandemics

In March 2020, New York governor, Andrew Cuomo described the virus as the great equaliser. But the pandemic has proved to be anything but. This is, in part, due to a dramatic double standard between domestic and international responses. While advanced economies spent roughly 17 per cent of their GDP on stimulus packages and another 11 per cent on equity, loans, and guarantees, low-income countries, which lack fiscal firepower, mustered just 1.8 per cent.

Throughout 2020, the US-chaired G7 was largely missing in action and the Trump administration actively blocked international economic support in the form of International Monetary Fund special drawing rights. The G20 offered some debt relief but failed to get private creditors, multilaterals, and China fully on board, meaning only 18 per cent of low-income country debt repayments were suspended. The United Kingdom dismantled its highly reputable Department for International Development and drastically cut aid. While the IMF expanded its balance sheet and doubled access to emergency funding for member countries, the World Bank was slow off the mark, taking more from low-income countries in debt repayments than it was providing in crisis response support months into the crisis. The World Bank has since caught up, mobilising $100 billion, but its reputation has not; one leading African voice said of it: “we’re ignoring them, they’re irrelevant.”

Globally, governments spent more than $80 billion on vaccine development. That the world had 15 effective vaccines deployed within a year was nothing short of a miracle. But the technology barrier has given way to the  inequality barrier. ONE’s covid-19 Africa tracker shows that 80 per cent of doses have been administered in high-income and upper-middle-income countries, compared to just 0.4 per cent in low-income countries. Rich countries have hoarded 1.3 billion doses more than they need. The EU reserved an additional 1.8 billion Pfizer/BioNTech doses in May 2021. While dose sharing commitments were made in the lead-up to the Rome Global Health Summit in May, the scale of commitment is far from where it needs to be. The US pledged 80 million doses, France and Germany each pledged 30 million, Italy pledged 15 million, and Spain 7.5 million.

At the same time, COVAX – the global fair-access mechanism on which Africa has been relying for doses – has failed to meet even its own (relatively low) targets. The scheme is still grossly underfunded and has delivered 65 million of the promised 170 million doses, in part due to export restrictions from India, where the world’s largest vaccine producer, the Serum Institute, has said it likely will not resume supply to COVAX until the end of 2021. All of this has resulted in an astoundingly unequal global vaccine rollout. While the US has vaccinated half its population and is considering calling up children for their shot, in Africa even frontline health workers and the elderly and infirm may be waiting until 2022.

A coming reckoning: Health, economic, and geopolitical self-harm

The scale of self-harm resulting from botched leadership is still to be fully understood. But it is possible to draw on some projections.

Firstly, there could be twice as many total deaths from covid-19 because rich countries have monopolised the first doses of vaccines instead of distributing them globally. There are currently over 4,000 covid-19 variants. Each new infection is an opportunity for mutation, increasing the risk that the virus becomes more transmissible and resistant to current treatments.

Secondly, the IMF has warned of a “great divergence.” High-income countries will recover to 4.3 per cent growth in 2021 while in many African countries a return to 2019 economic growth levels will not occur until 2022-24. The World Bank estimates that in 2020 the number of people living in extreme poverty globally (on less than $1.90 a day) increased for the first time in two decades, by 120 million (including 40 million in Africa).

Thirdly, the sense of betrayal and abandonment on the part of African countries will not be forgotten quickly. One senior UN official privately told the present author that they predicted a “coming reckoning”, while John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control, told Reuters, “As a continent, when this is all over … we will remember not just the loud voices of those who did not support us, but we will also remember the silence of our friends in this battle.”China has exported more vaccines than all other countries put together; the Chinese foreign ministry announced recently that the country is providing free vaccines to 69 countries and is selling them to 28 more. With the World Health Organization’s approval of Sinopharm and negotiations ongoing with Egypt to produce Sinovac vaccines, China is playing this crisis to its advantage; too many of its competitors are absent.

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

To truly end this pandemic, build back better, and avoid losing out in what is increasingly looking like a new cold war, the US, the UK, and the EU need to get their act together on two fronts.

Firstly, the world needs a plan to achieve global herd immunity by 2022. ONE analysis estimates that vaccine supply will outstrip demand by the summer in rich countries. These countries should commit now to share surplus doses and fully fund the WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and COVAX to the tune of $18.5 billion for this year. It is essential to scale up manufacturing facilities, share intellectual property, invest in cold chain facilities and trained healthcare practitioners, and deliver communications campaigns to counter vaccine hesitancy. All of this will cost roughly $50 billion according to the IMF. When it meets next month in Britain, the G7 should agree to shoulder the majority of the burden.

Secondly, the world also needs a major economic stimulus package. The IMF estimates that the “bare minimum” financing gap left by covid-19 in Africa is $285 billion, with potentially twice as much required for the continent to get back on its pre-pandemic economic path. Thankfully, with support from the Biden administration, the IMF board has signalled support for $650 billion special drawing rights. These are allocated to countries based on their IMF shareholding. Five per cent will go to Africa. But G7 countries are set to receive $238 billion, which they do not need – and so they should rapidly transfer these to those countries that desperately need liquidity. As chair of the G7, the UK should announce that it is reversing its savage aid cuts, and the seven members should commit to expanding debt relief and replenishing the World Bank’s International Development Association. For their part, African countries should commit to spend stimulus money in a transparent, green, and gender-sensitive way.

With competition for influence in Africa ramping up between the global powers, and the economic and humanitarian consequences so stark, the stakes could not be higher. If the covid-19 pandemic will be remembered as a key battleground in a future world order, the decisions made in the coming months will determine who wins.

David McNair is executive director for Global Policy at ONE, and an ECFR Council member.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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