Do you remember the UN Millennium Development Goals? If not, you are not alone. These ambitious goals included the eradication of "extreme poverty and hunger", "combating lethal diseases" and "reducing child mortality worldwide". They proved to be yet another empty gesture which, unsurprisingly, amounted to little on the ground where poverty, hunger, lethal diseases and child mortality are rampant.
Even if the architects of the project were well-intentioned as they laboured to meet the 2015 deadline, the lack of true international solidarity made their commendable programme simply impossible.
Sadly, whatever positive difference was made is now vanishing quickly, not because of the Covid-19 pandemic which continues to ravage the world, but because of the selfish and haphazard international response to the coronavirus.
Predictably, the most vulnerable are the first to suffer. According to a 15 July World Health Organisation (WHO) report, an estimated "23 million children missed out on basic vaccines through routine immunisation services in 2020 — 3.7 million more than in 2019."
It should be no surprise that most of these ongoing health crises are occurring in the southern hemisphere. India, for example, which has experienced a devastatingly high number of Covid-19 deaths, lags behind in terms of immunisation against other, equally deadly diseases. Over three million children in the world's second most populous country did not receive the first dose of DTP-1, the combined vaccine for diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis last year.
While the obvious culprit may seem to be Covid-19, in reality it is not the pandemic per se that has accelerated this dangerous trend. "The Covid-19 pandemic and related disruptions cost us valuable ground we cannot afford to lose – and the consequences will be paid in the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable," warned Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF.
Practically, this means that, even when the current pandemic becomes a memory, millions of people in poor or relatively poor countries will continue to pay a price for this unforgivable mismanagement of global healthcare.
When the WHO declared in March 2020 that Covid-19 was officially a "pandemic", many global intellectuals romanticised the notion that it had the potential to bring us closer together. A year and a half later we know that such high hopes were wishful thinking. If anything, the pandemic has deepened — and highlighted — not only existing global inequalities, but also the complete disregard of the poorer, readily exploited South by the wealthier, neo-colonial North.
In a thorough investigative report entitled "Vaccine inequity: Inside the cutthroat race to secure doses", the Associated Press revealed on 18 July the extent of the unfair international distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines. "Canada has procured more than 10 doses for every resident," for example, while "Sierra Leone's vaccination rate just cracked 1 per cent on June 20."
The same disquieting paradigm applies elsewhere. While Britain, the European Union and the US have produced or acquired multiple vaccines for every person, Oman, Honduras, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are situated firmly at the bottom of the "vaccine procurement" list.
The much-celebrated COVAX, an international project championed by the WHO and others to deliver billions of Covid-19 vaccinations to poorer countries in 2021-22, has proven to be a much slower process than once anticipated. Wealthy nations that have pledged to supply the programme with the needed doses seem to be more concerned about stockpiling or selling surplus vaccine to the highest bidder.
There is also the problem of existing income inequality and widespread corruption in much of the South. This makes access to the few available vaccines nearly impossible for the poorest communities.
According to a 2019 report by the World Inequality Database, income inequality in Africa is the highest in the world, where the average income of the top 10 per cent is nearly 30 times higher than the bottom 50 per cent. It is almost certain that those in the high-income bracket will be the first to access whatever little vaccine doses are available, while those at the bottom of the pile are likely to wait for years to receive life-saving vaccinations.
Health inequality around the world is nothing new, but the Covid-19 pandemic has offered us a rare, live scenario of what this inequality means on the ground. It is now easy to understand that the old and tired UN's millennium goals were never truly possible under the current political framework. Despite no doubt sincere — although, ultimately, unrealistic — intentions, the project was a mixture of political propaganda and empty rhetoric.
It is mind-boggling that, despite the fact that millions of people have perished as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and that for the first time in six decades life expectancy rates have fallen significantly worldwide, the vaccines are still considered a commodity in a competitive global market economy. While the fate of millions of people rests on the availability of the vaccines, they remain beholden to the inhumane economic rules of supply and demand.
While many are busy measuring the possible future repercussions of the pandemic in terms of economic output, life expectancy and suchlike, it is critical that we consider other factors that are certain to result from this unbearable inequality: revolutions, mass migration and famine. These are the other, little talked about, Covid-19 "variants" that must be addressed urgently.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.