Gates: COVID-19 has pushed 37 million people into extreme poverty and set vaccinations back 25 years

By Adele Peters

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation likes to promote a sense of optimism about the progress that the world has made in fighting poverty and improving global health over the last two decades—for instance, the fact that as more children in low-income countries have gotten access to childhood vaccines, millions of lives have been saved. But in the foundation’s newest Goalkeepers Report, an annual report that tracks how the world is advancing on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the news is now grim: After years of progress, the pandemic is setting the world back on most of the goals.

The number of people getting vaccinated, for example, has dropped to levels not seen since the 1990s. “In other words, we’ve been set back about 25 years in about 25 weeks,” Bill and Melinda Gates write in the report. Disruptions in healthcare mean that people with diseases such as HIV or TB are less likely to get treatment. The economic catastrophe caused by the virus means that people are struggling to afford food or keep a roof over their heads. Developing countries are finding innovative ways to help—India sent digital cash transfers to 200 million women soon after the pandemic began—but are still limited by budgets. As part of the report, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a Gates-backed program at the University of Washington, calculated that so far this year, nearly 37 million people globally have fallen below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day.

The situation can’t improve until the pandemic is under control, something that’s still far from happening. The report argues that the world needs to work together to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines, manufacture those as quickly as possible, and then get them to those who need them most, everywhere around the world. “Developing and manufacturing vaccines won’t end the pandemic quickly unless we also deliver them equitably,” they write. One model, from Northeastern University, looked at what would happen if the first two billion doses of a vaccine went to rich countries first, instead of doses being distributed equitably to people most at risk across the world. Twice as many people could die.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, a global effort supported by the foundation and other partners, is collaborating on solutions. But it still needs more funding, and some rich countries such as the U.S. are still focused on themselves rather than on the global challenge. The report points out that everyone loses if the bigger picture isn’t addressed, and no country can tackle the pandemic on its own. “Every single month, the global economy loses US$500 billion, and a collaborative approach will shave many months off of the world’s timeline,” they write. “Countries have already committed US$18 trillion to economic stimulus to treat the symptoms of the pandemic. Now they need to invest a small portion of that total to root out its cause.”

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