COVID-19 puts the spotlight on socio-economic inequalities

Sabrina Almeida

On Wednesday the World Health Organization called for a moratorium on COVID-19 vaccine boosters until at least the end of September. Not because third doses are unsafe or unnecessary, (we still don’t know that) but so that “at least 10 per cent of the population of every country is vaccinated”.

The pandemic status of the coronavirus means that vaccination efforts must also be global if there is to be any hope of turning the corner. As the WHO said last year the development of COVID-19 vaccines means little without vaccinations. And so, it is simply trying to equalize vaccine distribution. This seems impossible when the so-called ‘developed’ or rich countries hog all the vaccines that are being produced. 

India’s vaccine diplomacy which came at the cost of its own people is a prime example. A Reuter’s dashboard showed that it has now been able to get first doses to just 36 per cent of its citizens, despite indigenous vaccine production and international help.

So far, the race to get shots in arms has been an unfair one. While more than 70 per cent of Canadians and Brits have received at least one jab,  for example, Syria and Haiti have managed to vaccinate less than one per cent of their population.  According to Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, five per cent of those living in Africa have received one shot of a vaccine, with only about two per cent fully vaccinated. 

Other news reports suggest that many people in low income countries may have to wait till 2023 and 2024 to get vaccinated. This means that COVID-19 is likely to be around for another three years. The pandemic has proven that we can’t live in a bubble!

But although a large number of unvaccinated people in several countries remain susceptible to the coronavirus, which also raises the risk of more deadly variants, Germany and Israel are getting ready to administer boosters to their vulnerable population. France, Britain, and several other European countries are also making similar plans. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted the deal he has made with Pfizer for third doses. 

The reality is, as Aylward said, “we cannot get out of it unless the whole world gets out of it together”.

The pandemic has brought local and global socio-economic inequalities front and centre. The most critical being access to healthcare. Education, employment status, income level, gender and ethnicity have a marked influence on how healthy a person is. Research shows that minority ethnic groups were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the UK and US. A similar pattern emerged in Canada. 

More racially diverse areas had much higher numbers of COVID-19 deaths, according to StatCan data. In fact, the most racially diverse neighbourhoods in Canada reported COVID-19 mortality rates more than twice as high as those reported by districts that are overwhelmingly white.

Members of racial minorities also reported higher unemployment rates and levels of financial stress because they’re more likely to work in low-wage jobs that can’t be performed remotely, StatCan said.

Essential workers are inherently at higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 due to the nature of their work, and they are disproportionately representative of racial and ethnic minority groups.

If Brampton had one of the highest positivity rates it was because a majority of its population worked in precarious jobs with no work-from-home option.

Living in crowded conditions makes it very difficult to separate when you are or may be sick. Reports show that a higher percentage of people from racial and ethnic minority groups live in crowded housing. Many of the COVID-19 hotspots, especially in Peel Region, were areas where many households are either multi-family or multi-generational.

The pandemic also highlighted the digital or technological divide. Some 50% of people (that’s more than 600 million individuals) in India don’t have access to the internet, the World Economic Forum reported,  adding that classes were delivered by loud speakers in some rural areas. 

And while GTA school boards scrambled to provide underprivileged kids with electronic devices, poor Internet access and the lack of proper study space made remote learning almost impossible.  Lack of access to equipment, devices and broadband also prevented these vulnerable populations from accessing essential telemedicine facilities.

Unequal access to parks and green spaces which are essential to physical and mental health brought forth the new term “green poverty”. It’s why Doug Ford’s proposal to close parks during the pandemic brought public furor. Not everyone has a backyard to chill in.

The United Nations global development network says the unequal distribution of vaccines is a stark reminder of the gap between rich and poor countries.  A UN report in April showed that of the 832 million vaccine doses administered, 82 per cent have gone to high or upper middle-income countries, while only 0.2 per cent have been sent to their low-income peers. Moreover, in high-income countries, one in four people have received a vaccine versus 1 in 500 in poorer countries. 

“We cannot defeat this virus one country at a time,” says WHO chief Tedros.  “We can only do it with a coordinated global effort, based on the principles of solidarity, equity and sharing.” 

The same applies to the socio-economic inequalities within countries. Let’s not be selfish and hoard vaccines and other essential supplies, just because we have the means to do so.




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