The world’s poorest countries risk a lost decade of development unless leaders move quickly to help them recover from the fallout of Covid-19, Melinda Gates told the Guardian.
The co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed $350m (£270m) to support the global response to the pandemic, said it was in the hands of the global community to decide the long-term impact.
“Ultimately, it’s our choice as a global community whether we face another lost decade or not. We know what can be done to restart vaccination campaigns. We know what it takes to maintain essential health services during a crisis. We know a lot about the kind of inclusive policies needed to help people withstand the economic shock. It comes down to a question of political will and working together beyond our own borders. Covid-19 doesn’t determine that. We do,” said Gates.
Usually an upbeat look at efforts to end poverty and inequality, this year’s report, published on Tuesday, is stark in its appraisal. “In past editions of the Goalkeepers report … we have celebrated decades of historic progress in fighting poverty and disease,” read the introduction. “But we have to confront the current reality with candour: This progress has now stopped.”
Highlighting the 7% increase in extreme poverty as a result of Covid-19, the report noted that disruptions to health services are affecting the prevention and treatment of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, and could result in more women dying in childbirth. Immunisation rates have suffered a 25-year setback in just 25 weeks.
Arguing for a fair distribution of any coronavirus vaccine, the report pointed to modelling by academics at Northeastern University, which suggested that if 50 wealthy countries bought up the first 2bn doses of a vaccine, rather than ensuring they are distributed proportionally to populations, almost twice as many people could die. “This pandemic has magnified every existing inequality in our society – like systemic racism, gender inequality, and poverty. And it’s impossible to pick one issue as more serious because so many people live at the intersection of all of those challenges,” said Gates. She said there was an urgent need for better data collection.
The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority communities, and people living in extreme poverty. Women are facing an increased burden from rising demands in total unpaid care work and experiencing the majority of job losses. In the US alone, the percentage of black and Latinx people who say they cannot pay their rent is twice the percentage of white people. “And there isn’t enough being done to disaggregate data by race, income and so many other critical markers that help us develop the kind of policies and programmes to reach people with the support they need,” said Gates.
But she was optimistic that countries could bounce back quickly, “if we’re intentional about it, and if we put women at the centre of our response. And let’s remember, we’re not entirely unprepared. We have platforms in place that weren’t around in the 1980s and which can set us up for a quicker recovery.”