The most important lesson that we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is that inequalities are the Achilles heel of a society that has been hit by a pandemic. Based on selected insights from his new book, Pandemic Economics, Peter van Bergeijk argues that relatively small interventions in the Global South and the adjustment of the SDGs to include combating pandemics can go a long way in preventing future pandemics.
You learn a lot about humanity during a pandemic. Pandemics reveal imbalances, contradictions and inequalities that we can no longer ignore at the peril of succumbing under the pressure of the next pandemic (Meskoub 2021). Here are some of the most important lessons we have learned so far:
- We have learned that access to basic health care is not guaranteed during a pandemic and that marginalised groups are most vulnerable.
- We have learned that essential workers are at high risk to be contaminated and that society cannot do without the people that continue to provide essential services.
- We have learned that working conditions and the organisation of workplaces to a large extent determine the speed of transmission of a virus and that especially low-income earners appear to work in places where outbreaks occur frequently.
- We have learned that marginal poor and informal sector workers have no access to proper sanitary facilities and that lockdowns are no realistic tool, since their livelihoods are threatened.
- We have learned that the most vulnerable clusters in society consist of people that have no opportunity to work from home, need to travel by public transport, and have low incomes so that their housing does not afford much scope for social distancing.
- We have learned that this is true both for the Global South and the Global North.
We have learned… I sincerely hope that we have learned.
A business proposition
The fact that COVID-19 is a pandemic amplifies our current problems, but even for new contagious diseases that do not reach all continents, inequalities are the breeding ground for the spreading of disease and the suffering that may follow. Reducing epidemic vulnerabilities requires reducing the inequalities above.
But fighting the next pandemic implies that we cannot limit our attention to inequalities at home, because the equalities around the world – within and between countries – provide breeding grounds and disease pools from which new variants, viruses and other contagious diseases emerge. The implication is that reducing inequalities in other countries and continents becomes a business proposition: an investment project with a high rate of return.
‘Wash your hands!’ and the SDGs
One of the least intrusive and most effective measures against any contagious disease is washing your hands thoroughly. It is extremely important that handwashing is taught at home and at school and that this discipline is maintained. What we have learned from COVID-19 is that every Earthling is at risk, so we cannot afford the luxury of focusing on groups that are particularly vulnerable to infections only. Handwashing for example is only possible if clean water, ablution facilities and soap are available to everyone.
Since a pandemic is global, the approach needs to be global. Handwashing facilities in developing countries are a cheap, significant and necessary precaution. Therefore SDG 6 – ‘Ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all’– is an excellent business proposal that reduces pandemic vulnerability. Investing in clean water and sanitation is a very cost effective measure to reduce global pandemic vulnerability.
The realisation moreover that poverty is a breeding ground for pandemics implies that income inequality between and within countries is much more important than the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seem to acknowledge (van der Hoeven and van Bergeijk, 2018). From this perspective, a reformulation of SDGs may be necessary.
It is the planet, stupid!
The emergence of contagious virus should have come as no surprise, yet ‘preparedness’ to deal with the emergency was below standard. (Sathyamala, 2021). How can we increase pandemic preparedness? The scale of preparations cannot be international (that is, involving many countries), but needs to be global – so involving all countries. This obviously to some extent had already been recognised before the corona crisis by the move from ‘international health’ to ‘global health’.
Pandemics, however, have not yet received the explicit attention they need in the SDGs. The SDGs (and in particular the SDG 3 – ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages’) do not mention prevention of pandemics per se. Health target 3.3 – ‘By 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases’ – could be easily adjusted. Target 3.d – ‘Strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks’ – seems satisfactory at first glance, but misses the point that the ‘in particular’ is equally relevant for the advanced countries. The SDGs are targets for every country independent of its level of development.
Perhaps this is the most important lesson for the Global North. The advanced economies are not invulnerable and were ill prepared. The Global North needs to take inequalities seriously in order to survive. Fighting inequalities around the globe and domestically is the best business proposition that we have for the Global North.
Bergeijk, Peter A.G. van, 2021, Pandemic Economics, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/pandemic-economics-9781800379961.html
Hoeven. Rolph van der and Peter A.G. van Bergeijk, Inclusiveness and the SDGs: Can income inequality be reduced? https://issblog.nl/2018/01/12/inclusiveness-and-the-sdgs-can-income-inequality-be-reduced-by-rolph-van-der-hoeven-and-peter-van-bergeijk/
Meskoub, M, 2021, How exclusionary social protection systems in the MENA are making the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects worse, https://issblog.nl/2021/03/03/covid-19-how-exclusionary-social-protection-systems-in-the-mena-are-making-the-covid-19-pandemics-effects-worse/
Sathyamala, Christina, 2020, COVID-19: a biopolitical odyssey. ISS Working Paper No. 667, Erasmus University ISS: The Hague
Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.
About the author:
Peter van Bergeijk is professor of international economics and macroeconomics at the ISS.
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