THE SPEEDY development of covid-19 vaccines speaks to the best of humanity’s qualities: resilience, ingenuity and the ability to jointly overcome problems. Their distribution, however, reflects less well on the species. By late August 2021 around 60% of people in higher-income countries had received at least one dose of a vaccine. In poorer countries only 1% had. Such vaccine inequality is not simply unjust. Given the potential for dangerous mutations that could render vaccines less effective, it is epidemiologically irresponsible. And delays in vaccinating the global population have an economic cost as well.
A new report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a sister company of The Economist, tries to put a price on such delays. It first projects which countries will have vaccinated less than 60% of their population by mid-2022. Then it calculates how much those countries stand to lose between 2022 and 2025 compared with a scenario in which they achieve higher vaccination rates more quickly. The EIU reckons that they will miss out on $2.3trn-worth of output between 2022 and 2025. The need to extend social-distancing measures, loss of revenue from tourism and business travel, and the likelihood of social unrest in the event of a prolonged struggle against the virus, among other factors, will all weigh on their economic trajectory.
That amount of forgone output is roughly equivalent to the GDP of France. Two-thirds of this shortfall will be borne by poorer countries that are not members of the OECD, a club of developed countries. In absolute terms Asia will be worst affected, with a projected loss of $1.7trn over three years. But it is Africa that will stomach the highest losses as a share of GDP, missing out on 3% of the region’s forecast output under a higher-vaccination scenario. What’s more, the EIU’s estimates are almost certainly too low—the model does not account for factors such as the impact of lockdowns on schooling, which will have a dramatic, long-lasting impact on economic productivity.
There is little prospect of the vaccine-access gap being bridged quickly. COVAX, an initiative to provide vaccines to poor countries, is supposed to distribute 1.9bn doses this year. To date, it has shipped only 210m. Rich countries that promised to donate vaccines have also fallen behind schedule, and their recent enthusiasm for administering booster doses will not help. Logistics complicate the picture in many countries: some jabs require cold storage, for example. And the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant means that herd immunity, the level at which the virus dies off for lack of hosts to infect, is now a pipedream. As governments rethink their covid strategies to take account of the disease’s now endemic nature, they should also re-examine their approach towards vaccine distribution. The cost of not doing so is too high.
The EIU’s full report can be found here.