Vaccine equity will define how global economies recover from COVID-19

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Laurel Patterson, Head, Sustainable Development Goal Integration, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) & Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of HIV, Health and Development Group, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)


  • Just over 1% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • More than 50% of people in high-income countries have been vaccinated.
  • The economic impacts of COVID-19 may last until 2024 in low-income countries.

Just over 1% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to date, which stands in stark contrast to 51% of people in high-income countries. The lack of accessible and affordable vaccines for all will fuel additional waves of infections, human suffering and death across the globe.

But that is not the full story.

COVID-19 vaccine injustice will also have a lasting and profound impact on welfare, jobs, public debt and possibilities for human development, setting back the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the pledge to leave no one behind.

To realize the potential of the UN’s Decade of Action and work towards a fair and sustainable recovery, speed of vaccination is of the essence. Our analysis shows that if low-income countries had the same vaccination rates as high-income countries, they would have added $38 billion to their GDP forecast for 2021, which represents an 8% increase above the 472 billion predicted by International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) forecast in April.

This underscores that a fast vaccination roll-out is decisive for countries’ possibilities to recover and create fiscal space for other health and development priorities.

IMF projections show that while high-income countries could reach pre-COVID-19 per capita GDP growth rates by the end of 2021, the economic impacts of COVID-19 may last until 2024 in low-income countries.

Our research shows that eight out of ten people pushed into poverty by COVID-19 are projected to live in the world’s poorest countries in 2030, further compounded by a fragmented recovery and all but erasing SDG progress since 2015. This widening poverty gap can be reversed by ending vaccine inequity alongside integrated investments through an ‘SDG Push’, including stronger social protection schemes across health, education, and other human development indicators.

If lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines are not made accessible and affordable for all right now, low-income countries would need to increase health care spending by 57% to vaccinate 70% of their populations – a daunting task for the world’s poorest countries. Even if achieved, this would have major ramifications for other pressing health and development challenges. In contrast, high-income countries would have to increase their spending by just 0.8% to achieve the same level of protection.

The lagging vaccine rollout in low-income countries.
The lagging vaccine rollout in low-income countries. Image: Flourish

Equation of inequity

This equation of inequity threatens to push poor countries further down the debt spiral and compromise other needed investments.

In Mozambique, which has the highest relative increase in public debt to GDP ratio due to vaccine procurement costs, an estimated increase in public debt of $314 million could provide healthcare for 7.8 million people, or 25% of the population.

In Algeria, a lower-middle-income country, the cost of vaccine represents 4% or $661 million of the total projected increase in public debt in 2021. This amount could be used to fund other social protection programmes that are crucial in the COVID-19 recovery, such as a temporary basic income of $5.58 per day, covering 339 million people for one month.

The impact of vaccine injustice also ripples across labour markets, deepening poverty among those most vulnerable. Data on working hours lost due to COVID-19 shows that the equivalent of 255 million jobs were lost during the pandemic, which is five times higher than the job loss during the 2008 financial crisis. While high-income countries can protect against losses by transitioning to remote work, low-income countries with high prevalence of informal work and low rates of vaccination face a far deeper socio-economic divide.

In 2020, the world’s 2 billion informal workers, representing well over half of the global workforce, saw a 60% decline in their earnings due to COVID-19, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). So far, 2021 has seen a significant increase in the number of days of complete lockdown in countries with a large informal sector, including India, Indonesia, and Ghana, where national vaccination rates are too low to allow reopening of economies. This is particularly problematic for informal workers who depend on daily wages, not least women – 92% of whom are found in informal employment in low-income countries.

Every additional day that goes by without faster and fairer access to vaccines in poorer countries will deepen the social and economic divide between the haves and have nots and render the world more vulnerable to highly transmissible and deadly COVID-19 variants.

Learn more about this joint UNDP, WHO and University of Oxford initiative at https://data.undp.org/vaccine-equity/ and @SDGintegration

The authors are members of the World Economic Forum Expert Network.

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