What the war in Ukraine and COVID-19 teach us about interconnectedness and inequality

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Due to the war in Ukraine not only have the country's inhabitants come under fire, but also has the granary of much of the world. If the war is not stopped, grain prices will rise. This will have severe effects on many countries and vulnerable countries in Africa are likely to bear the brunt.

The war, like the corona pandemic, illustrates how closely we are interconnected as nations on a global scale. What effects do such crises have on existing inequality?

On 17 March 2022, the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) launched the book 'COVID-19 and International Development' (Springer, 2021). During the launch at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam, ISS researchers shed light on the unseen faces of the corona pandemic in low-income countries.

We spoke to some of the authors about the impact of COVID-19 on the Global South and their expectations for the future.

What are the main socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Global South?

Rolph van der Hoeven and Rob Vos: ‘Developing countries have suffered severe economic fallouts due to the pandemic. Between 100 and 160 million more people in low-income countries have fallen into poverty and hunger. The recovery has been bumpy and developing countries have had little fiscal and monetary capacity to respond. Many countries now face severe debt distress.

Some progress has been made towards realizing two of four reforms we proposed in the book: international tax coordination and issuance of new SDRs. However, these still need to be tailored to serve the interests of the Global South.

Worldwide, we are unprepared for future pandemics and major global crises. Just look at last year’s events: many of the world’s poor also had to cope with a surge in food prices. The current Russian invasion of Ukraine will further increase food prices, while the capacity of the government to protect the vulnerable has eroded. We should expect poverty and hunger to rise even further.’

Natascha Wagner: ‘We still have very little fact-based evidence on the indirect health consequences in the Global South where health information systems are weak. We have observed severe disruptions in the provision of routine health care services, preventive care, and treatment schemes.

Foregone health care potentially results in more severe complications, co-infections and incurable conditions, in particular among the poorest. The combination of ad hoc lockdowns without a social assistance system that just as rapidly reaches the poorest has severely affected the already sluggish progress towards the SDGs.’

Farhad Mukhtarov: ‘The pandemic has made it clear that the global water crisis is not so much about scarcity or affordability of water. These can be resolved in most cases by temporarily augmenting supply and providing subsidies. Rather, it is about societal inequality, racial and class-based patterns of violence and exploitation.

Many things are needed: fairer wealth redistribution, more equal practices of taxation, greater investment in the public sector, as well as greater social provision of marginalized groups. They are all necessary to treat various ailments of contemporary global societies.’

Matthias Rieger: ‘The global nature of the pandemic and insufficient data often render it hard to precisely quantify “impacts”. During the pandemic I noticed confused public and policy discourse around the world on “impacts” without proper counterfactual thinking.

I think the pandemic has highlighted the need to use natural experiment approaches in global health research and to routinely collect reliable health data.’

Omicron is more contagious but has fewer health consequences

‘We are getting more and more confident that our optimism about the quick recovery from the COVID-19 trade shock was justified. Although the omicron variant is more contagious, it has fewer health consequences and the impact of the pandemic is weaning off – also amongst the non-vaccinated.’

Sylvanus Kwaku Afesorgbor

Have you become more or less optimistic about the COVID-19-related impacts since your chapter was written?  

Have you become more or less optimistic about the COVID-19-related impacts since writing your chapter?

Peter A.G. van Bergeijk: 'Globalization encountered another setback with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We are on the verge of a  revival of a Cold War setting. This will tend to reduce the world’s openness by another 1.5% points (indication of the increase in the share number): Mr. Putin may have effectively killed the era of globalization.’

Binyam Afewerk Demena: 'The major COVID-19 implication is that the feasibility of export-oriented growth strategies decreases. In addition, the workings of international organizations will be further frustrated. That is bad news for developing countries. The Global South still has to deal with many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, due to weak health systems, low socio-economic conditions, extreme poverty rates and limited access to sanitation to contain impacts.’    

Agni Kalfagianni: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has put further strain on poor health care systems and has reduced even more access to food for the most vulnerable. Not much has changed really to give reason for either optimism or pessimism in that respect. The lack of solidarity towards vaccine access from the Global North to the Global South exacerbated existing problems.

Regarding future pandemics; we may react more quickly, given the experience that we have gained. But until major changes in the health care systems and global cooperation take place, we will fail again.’

Are we now better prepared to protect vulnerable individuals and communities from future pandemics?

Zemzem Shigute Shuka: ‘The coronavirus has proven to be a conundrum that even the most economically powerful nations were not able to control.

The virus itself does not discriminate between rich and poor people or nations. However, marginalized groups, including migrants, continue to bear its plight. They face intersecting layers of struggle based on various factors including gender, marital status, education, language, employment, and duration of stay in the country.’

Syed Mansoob Murshed: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic’s initial impact on inequality was negative. However, there are signs that the world’s inequality tolerance may be diminishing. Secondly, the labour supply surge - engendered when China and the former Eastern bloc embraced capitalism - is now also ending. That may be good news for workers and the poor in developing countries but has to be counterbalanced with the bad news about trade disruptions and rising energy prices.’

Georgina M. Gómez and G. J. Andrés Uzín P.: ‘Governments have now terminated the restrictive measures that were based on fear of infection. Such measures were dominant in the initial waves of of the corona pandemic in 2020-2021. Biosecurity restrictions have become rare, despite low vaccination levels, allowing schools to reopen. Most economies in the  world are recovering strongly, although this is evident mainly at the local level. Inflation, disruption of supply chains and the reorganization of global production continue.

People have accepted the disease as inevitable and there is a sense of resignation. In the context of the resumption of normal life this may lead to deeper health crises if new aggressive variants of COVID-19 appear.’

Elissaios Papyrakis: ‘The recent invasion of Ukraine has shifted almost all attention away from the pandemic, and especially from COVID-19-related issues in the Global South. There are still many impoverished countries, where less than 1% of the population has been fully vaccinated. As long as high levels of inequality within and across countries persist, we will remain largely unprepared for future pandemics.’

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