Many of us involved in development work in low-income countries have been talking for a long time about the interconnectedness of our world and the consequences of our actions — or inactions. Frankly, it’s been a hard sell. But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the race to vaccinate has brought this conversation into sharp focus, especially as new and potentially vaccine-resistant mutations emerge around the world.
Middle- and high-income nations are pinning their hopes on vaccines and the potential for herd immunity. But in the borderless and microscopic world of viral pathogens, the human race is one big herd. “Crushing” the virus in California or Canada is a fruitless exercise if we don’t also crush it in Cambodia or Kenya. As long as this miniscule marauder lingers and mutates in regions of neglect, it will have the potential to mount a fresh assault on the world.
This realization is starting to hit home in the corridors of power. For example, Canada is looking at sharing its excess stock with low-income nations, and the Biden administration has vowed to throw its weight behind COVAX, the international alliance negotiating on behalf of countries lacking the financial or political muscle to secure their own supply.
The World Health Organization said last week that only one of the world’s 29 poorest countries has started coronavirus vaccinations. Billions of people will not receive a vaccine in 2021, and there are now serious doubts about efficacy in the case of the new South African variant. WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned of a “colossal moral failure.”
Of course, the consequences extend well beyond moral jeopardy. The longer the virus lingers, the greater its potential to cause lasting damage to the global economy, and the less certainty we will have in our everyday lives.
In this regard, COVID-19 is a teachable moment for the world. It shows us the danger of believing that what happens across town is a world removed from what happens across the planet. This provincial mindset is a danger to all of us.
Its application to climate change is an obvious example. As we in the global north dance around the realities of our actions as emitters and polluters, millions of poor families are seeing their assets and livelihoods disappear in the face of drought, flood, and infestation. My colleagues all around the world can testify to this — they witness it every day.
Not really our problem? Think again. With hunger levels on the rise for the first time in a decade, there reappears the specter of widespread famine, the threat of mass migration, the rise of conflict, and the potential for increased extremism and political instability. These consequences impact the wider world, as history has demonstrated again and again.
It’s not just about avoiding catastrophe. The positive impacts of investing in underdeveloped countries are plain to see. Healthy, educated, and empowered populations drive economic wealth and stability. They thus create markets and economies with which we can trade and partner. It wasn’t that long ago that nations like India and Bangladesh labored under the burden of extreme poverty, but their emergence as middle-income players has been nothing less than spectacular. The potential for others to join those ranks is great, and the returns will be global.
At every level and from every perspective, we should learn the lesson so starkly presented by the pandemic. Failure to think, plan, and act in the best interests of the global herd puts the herd’s very survival in peril. The phrase “joined-up thinking” may have attained cliché status in the Twitterverse, but out there in the real world, it’s right on the money.
Colleen Kelly is the U.S. CEO of the international humanitarian aid organization Concern Worldwide. The views expressed are the author's own.