Of shortcomings and solutions in handling the Covid crisis

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Sunday 17 Jan 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Even the most optimistic could not have predicted that a vaccine against the Covid-19 would have been developed in such a short period of time. This is a battle that modern science has won. We were told it would take 18 months to two years or more to produce a coronavirus vaccine, but in fact it took less than a year.

It was only normal that the Covid-19 vaccines were developed by labs and scientific circles that saw huge investments directed towards accomplishing certain missions in the US, Europe, China and Russia.

The thing about these investments is that they are politically supported and backed by institutional work that supports scientists and research and puts together the work of scientific research centres, governments and companies amid active international cooperation between all these parties. This is what encourages the sustainability of such high-yield investments.

However, the threat of the pandemic continues, with an increasing number of infections and fatalities. The mutation of the virus poses a new threat that requires ongoing scientific efforts. For science to help people, it needs effective systems and adequate resources, as has been confirmed by a report of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) that warned of the coronavirus months before the outbreak based on its experience with previous pandemics.

The GPMB warning was not taken seriously, however, and as its report warned the world was then hit by negligence in the necessary preparations before the outbreak and panic and confusion after it.

A new report by the GPMB called “A World in Disorder” has now called for five urgent lessons to be learned in order to bring order out of the catastrophe.

These are that the political leadership is largely responsible for not making the protection of people’s lives a priority even in cases where that conflicts with their livelihoods, that effective preparations against pandemics are not limited to what governments do to protect people, but rather depend on what people do to protect each other, and that the impact of pandemics extends beyond health damages to social and economic dimensions that weigh heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society.

 The efforts made to prevent the pandemic were not sufficient given the health and social considerations or the necessary response, and the return on investment in securing the global health system is very high, the report said.

The estimates of the return on investment in prevention systems can be described in terms of the proverb that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The money the world has lost due to the pandemic would have been sufficient to prevent it for a period of no less than 500 years, given that the cost of fighting the pandemic had exceeded $11 trillion up until the time the GPMB report was released, in addition to the $10 trillion in lost revenues due to the pandemic.

The cost of preventive measures to prevent the pandemic would not have exceeded $5 per person per year and a total of $39 billion annually for the entire world’s population. Even so, it seems that the lessons of the pandemic have not yet taken hold, as the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) COVAX facility, which targets making vaccines available in developing countries, has faced a deficit of 85 per cent of its total funding of $38 billion since its establishment last year.

Besides the financing challenges, it is important to stress that the global preparations required to prevent and deal with the pandemic are not the sum of individual initiatives. Dealing with the pandemic as a global shock should be dealt with within one integrated system. Any health system is measured by the strength of its weakest link, and one fatal error would be to believe that the coronavirus crisis will end if the most-vulnerable stratum is vaccinated and refrains from mingling with others.

The reason behind providing the vaccine for all, including the poor in lower income countries, is dictated by the concept of preserving personal interests – if it is not sufficient simply to adhere to the values ​​of compassion and solidarity in the face of the most severe human, social and economic crisis humanity has experienced in the modern era.

However, the application of this simple approach to international solidarity, not necessarily absent from the general concept, has been impeded by practices such as politicising vaccines according to their country of origin or beneficiary country, reserving unneeded stocks of vaccines beyond the actual needs of countries able to procure the necessary funding, and procrastination in supporting the poorest countries.

To curb the spread of the pandemic in developing countries, including the Arab and African states, it is critical not to halt efforts to address the health and social repercussions of the pandemic and ways to ensure and recover from its economic impacts.

It is vital to prevent these countries from experiencing liquidity crunches resulting from shrinking growth and the contraction of their economies and to prevent them from suffering from debt crises in the light of what is known as the fourth wave of debt accumulation that has come on the back of the three waves that have taken place over the past five decades.

Debt accumulation has been responsible for two economic crises in developing countries and for the global financial crisis of 2008 that followed the third wave. Fears of a fourth wave of such accumulation have mounted after the rise in loans by seven per cent annually before the outbreak of Covid-19 and their recent increase by nine per cent, according to the recently released World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report.

The pandemic hit as the Arab countries, with a few exceptions, were suffering from the repercussions of a lost decade of development due to low growth rates and a retreat of public and private investments and exports. Moreover, a number of Arab countries have been mired in domestic conflicts and tensions. For these and other reasons the region has been the only area in the world where extreme poverty has been on the rise.

The Middle East and North Africa region, which includes the majority of Arab countries, experienced an economic downturn of about five per cent last year, which will not be compensated for by limited growth of about two per cent this year. The situation requires setting out public-spending priorities to support the response to the pandemic, strengthening social security systems, and driving up vital public investments to pave the way for private domestic and foreign investments to generate job opportunities.

If public investments in developed countries and emerging markets by one per cent of GDP increase private investments by about 10 per cent, thereby increasing growth and employment opportunities, then such investments should be directed towards stimulating economic activity at a time when it is feared that a global economic slump could turn into a lingering recession as demand continues to decline in the light of the repercussions of the pandemic.

Sustainable investments compatible with the need to protect the environment and that do not exacerbate climate change, and smart investments that drive competitiveness in the digital age, have a positive impact on the general public and the economy. Such vital investments are “the ounce of prevention” that to the economy and its future are “worth a pound of cure.”

*The writer is an economist. An Arabic version of this article appeared on wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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