As economies across the globe recover from the COVID-19 crisis in very different ways, we are witnessing deepening global divisions where collaboration is necessary to ride out the pandemic, dress its wounds and move forward.
It’s been over two years since the detection of the first Covid case in Wuhan, and economic challenges persist. As cases of the Omicron variant spike once again, the ability of nations to begin a sustained recovery is increasingly jeopardised.
Global vaccine inequality has a crucial role to play. While the rollout of the UK’s booster programme began to curb the latest Omicron surge, in the poorest 52 countries of the world – home to 20% of the global population – only 6% of the population have been vaccinated.
Research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has shown that only 9% of African nations have had both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Many countries, including some of the largest across the continent, have so far vaccinated fewer than 5% of their populations. For example, Nigeria has fully vaccinated 2.1%, Ethiopia 3.5%, the Democratic Republic of Congo 0.1% and alarmingly, Eritrea has yet to begin a vaccination programme.
Where less advanced economies continue to suffer, vaccination and accelerated digitalisation have enabled many counties to begin to recover more rapidly from the pandemic and its economic turmoil.
This is compounding existing international geopolitical tensions and social divisions, with a widening of the global income gap showing this is already in motion. Advanced economies are expected to surpass 0.9% GDP growth by 2024 while the world’s developing economies are set to lose almost 6% of their expected GDP growth compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Other diseases in the wake of coronavirus have been deprioritised and this has resulted in widespread collateral health impacts that continue to put pressure on global health systems, widen inequalities internationally and regionally and deepen the economic struggles of nations.
Mental health has arguably taken the biggest hit during the COVID-19 outbreak. In the UK, 68% of children aged 11-18 believe that young people’s mental health has got worse as a result of the pandemic, while one in three said they do not feel comfortable asking for help if they need it.
It is not just mental health that has suffered – treatments for other illnesses have taken a backseat to deal with COVID-19. Once again, we see this disproportionately affecting countries in the developing world, where funding and resources are already scarce.
As income disparities and uneven recoveries play out, a widening of geopolitical fractures is inevitable. We are already witnessing fragile economies spiralling deeper into crises as cuts to foreign aid and cooperation come at the expense of richer economies priorities. For instance, the UK Government reduced its 0.7% spending on foreign aid until at least 2024.
The resulting global divergence will create tensions – within and across borders – that risk worsening the pandemic’s cascading impacts and complicating the coordination needed to tackle common challenges including strengthening climate action, enhancing digital safety, restoring livelihoods and societal cohesion and managing competition in cyber and space.
Restoring trust and fostering cooperation within and between countries in the future will be crucial to prevent the world from drifting further apart.