This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.
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Evidence shows that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are greatest for the world’s poorest. Without equal access to vaccines, tests and treatments, new variants of the virus can and will develop, permitting the pandemic to rage on with further loss of lives and livelihoods everywhere. As the travel bans on southern Africa show, the crisis has direct as well as indirect consequences. In its latest Economic Outlook, the OECD projects the global economy will grow by 5.6% in 2021 (adjusted downward since September) and 4.5% in 2022 overall. Yet a full recovery is likely in only a handful of countries over the short term, with low-income countries expected to bare long-term scars.
Those who are already furthest behind are falling further—and faster. Over the past two years, an estimated 100 million people have fallen into extreme poverty, with widening inequalities reversing decades of development progress in areas such as gender and education. Private external finance flows to developing countries—including foreign investment or workers’ remittances—plummeted by 20%, down more than USD 200 billion since the beginning of the pandemic. Tax revenues in developing countries have also fallen, for example by an estimated USD 70 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa.
International aid is regularly cited as a good example of a counter-cyclical flow during this crisis. Indeed, Official Development Assistance (ODA) increased to USD 161 billion over the first year of the pandemic—amounting to an increase of USD 8 billion over the previous year, boosted from aid for the COVID-19 crisis. Yet this support paled in comparison to the USD 16 trillion mobilised by richer countries in domestic stimulus packages, and efforts to agree debt relief programmes for the world’s poorest countries have stalled.
As the COVID-19 varient Omicron continues to spread, we are facing a new divisive eposide that further threatens our international co-operation and co-ordination. South African health authorities identified a new variant and responsibly shared the information with other countries. In response, some countries chose to ban flights from several African countries, delivering huge blows to their already-crippled economic activity.
This latest example comes on top of many others. Over the last two years, we have repeatedly failed the solidarity test vis-à-vis developing countries: we did not support them enough in pandemic preparedness and in strengthening health systems; we did not support them in enough in building resilience to external shocks we did not ensure equitable access to vaccination. In the face of a new variant, we continue to build walls. This approach, in addition to being morally reprehensible, is irrational in terms of science and economics.
To end the crisis, the top global policy priority remains to ensure that vaccines are produced and deployed as quickly as possible throughout the world. In September, a Global COVID-19 summit convened by United States President Biden set a target of 40% vaccination for the 92 poorest countries. In November, G20 leaders stated their goal to vaccinate at least 40% of the population in all countries by the end of 2021, and 70% by mid-2022. However, while approximately two-thirds of people in high and upper middle-income countries are on track to be fully vaccinated by the end of the year—with many now receiving third or booster shots—only 3% of people in low-income countries have received two doses, and only 20% have received one dose.
Read more on the Forum Network: The Haves and Have-Nots: The geopolitical dilemma of COVID vaccine equity by Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Member, African Union's African Vaccine Delivery Alliance; Global Advisory Board Member for WomenLift Health; Chief Strategist, CONVINCE Africa
The Access to Covide-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A)—including its COVAX vaccine facility—was set up to help address these inequities by catalysing development, production and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines globally. The mechanism has been relatively well supported by aid programmes, with 87% of all contributions pledged to date to ACT-A and 90% to COVAX coming from member countries of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. However, supply constraints over much of 2021—driven largely by “vaccine hording”—have meant COVAX has been able to secure only two-thirds of the 2 billon vaccines promised to the poorest, and surpluses in wealthier countries may go to waste unless redistributed. On the upside, vaccine delivery through COVAX is finally picking up, with low-income countries due to receive 1.2 billion does by end December 2021.
From the beginning of the pandemic, our health experts warned that COVID-19 is not over until it is over everywhere—a popular mantra by now, repeated by leaders all over the world. We know low immunisation rates are a breeding ground for new variants, and that Africa has faced some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates worldwide due to a lack of access to doses. And we know that ongoing infections will cause millions more deaths and also penalise the global economy by more than USD 9.2 trillion. Yet here we are, facing a new strain that the World Health Organisation has warned carries a very high risk of causing surges in infection around the world. Beyond the health and economic impacts, there are escalating political consequences: the relationship between countries, as well as the contours of our future global architecture and geopolitics, will depend on the degree of solidarity that we are willing to assume in times of need.
It is time to get vaccines into arms everywhere, to roll out treatments and expand testing capabilities globally. It is time to strengthen health systems and ensure that all countries have the digital tools they need to ensure safe mobility for their citzens. In short, it is time for our leaders to put their faith in science and collective responses—not travel bans. Until we do so, the road to recovery remains precarious and uncertain for us all.
 See this OECD policy paper and this World Bank analysis
 Airfinity, G20 analysis, November 2021
Find out more about the OECD’s work on The race to vaccinate