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Inequality, COVID-19 and the Plight of the Young

Credit: @ Mahnaz Yazdani

STOCKHOLM / ROME, Mar 16 2021 (IPS) - Inequality characterizes the world we live in, predisposing how we act and think. We perceive our existence as composed of dichotomies – men and women, young and old, black or white, as well as a difference between those who have and those who do not have access to wealth, health, education and influence. Dichotomies are also born out of comparisons, about how things are now and how they could have been, how they were before and how they are now.

COVID-19 is on the mind of a majority of the world’s population and as in everything else what is happening to us it is influenced by inequalities. Many are exhausted from isolation and worries: personal and economic losses mingle with ignorance about what COVID-19 really is and how it will develop. Among the many factors governing decisions concerning the pandemic are preconceived differences between nations and age groups.

During a briefing on the 18th of June and 2nd of July last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed A Global Framework to Ensure Equitable and Fair Allocation of COVID-19 Products. The recommendations were based on statistics indicating that one percent of the world’s population are healthcare system workers, while eight percent are 65 years and older, and a further 15 percent adults have “comorbidities”, which place them in high risk for fatal COVID-19 infections.

Most governments have declared they intend to follow WHO’s recommended allocations for a vaccine roll-out, by prioritizing “health- and social care workers” as the first group to receive the COVID vaccine. These people are in “developed countries” estimated to constitute three percent of the population. The second stage of vaccinations will benefit individuals who are at “high risk” and/or “above 65 years of age” (approximately 20 percent), while a third stage will benefit “further priority groups”, whose need is based on their health conditions (20 percent).

It may be emphasized that WHO’s Allocation Framework was foremost recommended to be applicable to “low income countries” and “low and middle income countries”, while making it free for “self-financing” nations to acquire a preferential access to a still limited global access to COVID vaccines. This means that wealthy nations are free to enter into advance purchase agreements with manufacturers and thus capture the constrained supply of vaccines, most of them have already secured preferential access, meaning that they currently control a larger proportion of the vaccine supply.

However, under a scheme called Covax WHO intends to, in cooperation with the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), ensure that 92 “poorer countries” will receive access to vaccines, at the same time as 98 “wealthier countries”. Currently Covax has raised 6 billion USD, but at least another 2 billion USD are still needed to meet its target for 2021.

Vaccines produced in the UK, US, Europe, Russia and China have already been approved and bought and are now being distributed in countries around the world. High-income countries are currently holding 4.2 billion doses of COVID vaccines, while low-middle income nations have obtained 670 million, meaning that rich nations, representing 14 percent of the world’s population, so far has bought up more than half of the most promising vaccines.

Accordingly, poor countries are still lagging behind in the race for obtaining enough vaccine, while several of the Covax signatories, which have provided funding to the programme, are directly negotiating their own deals with pharmaceutical companies. Accordingly, they may be undermining the initiative by taking doses off the market, risking that demand will continue to outstrip supply. Of course, every political leader wants to protect her/his own population first, though during a global pandemic no country can be safe until all countries are protected.

The facts above are clear for all to see, though they are just the tip of an iceberg of inequalities connected with COVID-19. One aspect that so far has not been widely acknowledged is the degree to which youngsters and children are affected by and suffering from the effects of COVID-19. They are actually those who are scheduled to be the last ones to obtain the COVID vaccine. This group does not only include adolescents, but the entire so called Generation Z, i.e. the demographic cohort which grew up with internet and portable digital technology and whose majority now is taking care of the sick and elderly, as well as maintaining the production and services that support us all.

Small children are also hard hit by COVID-19. The number of children under five dying from avoidable diseases increased considerably last year, since the pandemic in many nations has paused the fight against infectious diseases and overturned vaccination programs. Children and young people are also experiencing increased abuse and neglect due to COVID-19. Particularly young people, and women to a higher degree than men, are suffering from closure of schools, universities and diminished job opportunities. A worrisome trend is that at least 13 million girls are assumed to have been married off at an earlier age than before, mainly due to school closures and missed education- and job opportunities.

For those of us who have children and grandchildren, young and old, COVID-19 now confirms that our generation has let them down. With good reason, our young ones raise their voices accusing us for belonging to a generation that has been willing to sacrifice its children for its own welfare. It is only when we ourselves are being threatened that we have been prepared to take drastic action. Young people might tell us: “Look what you have left behind as heritage to us – a wrecked climate, a polluted earth and weapons of mass destruction, and now you demand that we remain secluded at home to prevent you from being infected with COVID-19.”

When I observe young people and children around me it is easy to discern the difficulties they have to cope with. How they struggle with themselves and their existence. Most young people feel worse now, than before COVID-19. They worry more about their future, while fewer and fewer think life is meaningful. Youngsters, finding themselves in a period of life when social interaction is crucial for their development and well-being, are now being secluded between four walls in homes that many of them are forced to share with frustrated, ageing and nagging parents.

The majority of the world’s children did not go to school last year and it has been demonstrated that the education of those students who received distance education have slipped behind. Danish researchers found that eight-graders in Copenhagen who due to COVID-closure did not go school gained an average of 7.6 kilos, of which 3.3 kilos were pure fat. Children simply stopped moving. In other areas the effect may have been the opposite when children from poor families have missed their school lunches.

A survey by the German Institute for Economic Research (Ifo) found that students on average had halved the time they spent on learning and homework, while Germany’s weekly magazine, Der Spiegel, warned that poorer education entails a risk of physical and mental illness, while reporting that education economists had calculated that four months of closed schools reduced a future annual income by 2.5 percent.

It has been stated that the financial crisis that shock the world 15 years ago led to around 10,000 more suicides than normal. Currently, European and American organisations working to prevent suicides are warning that their hotlines are getting overworked. The economic distress of millions of young people and struggling families trying to make ends meet, due to lay-offs and decreasing job opportunities in the wake of COVID-19, does not bode well for the future.

Unfortunately, I do not think I am an alarmist. It is high time we concern ourselves with the welfare of the world’s children and young people. Let as take the COVID-19 as a warning and let us remind ourselves that we cannot act in a laissez-fair manner by avoiding what parents have done before us – considering the well-being of their children to be their main priority.

Main sources: BBC: Covax: How will Covid vaccines be shared around the world? 24 February, Ifo Insitute: COVID-19 school closures hit low-achieving students particularly hard. 15 November 2020 Gardell, Jonas; Vi offrar barnens hälsa och framtid i covidstrategin, 1 March

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.


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