Health Insurance in Morocco
By the end of 2021, health insurance in Morocco covered 11 million citizens. With the final count of covered citizens, the Moroccan government announced its expansion of health insurance to unconsidered sector workers. The number of protected citizens will grow in 2022 as proposals are under review to expand health insurance to uncovered workers, such as artisans, taxi drivers, farmers and more.

Morocco’s Health Insurance System

Morocco’s health insurance system is a mixture of government-run and privately owned insurance businesses. Most in Morocco have coverage through the primary source of health insurance. This is the Mandatory Health Insurance, L’Assurance Maladie Obligatoire (AMO).

Morocco implemented its first health care policy in 1959 and established free health services in the public sector. After 1959, the Moroccan health care system went through various changes. However, in 2005, it established and stabilized with the implementation of new programs to regulate and differentiate between the private and public health insurance systems.

In 2005, the Moroccan government created a mandatory, payroll-based health insurance plan that increased coverage from 16% of the Moroccan population to 30%. The payroll-based system is the AMO. The AMO covers the costs of general medicine and medical and surgical specialties, pregnancy, childbirth and postnatal care, laboratory tests, radiology and medical imaging, optical care, oral health treatment and paramedics.

The Regime d’Assistance Medicale (RAMED)

The second insurance policy that Morocco implemented is the Regime d’Assistance Medicale (RAMED). RAMED is a public, government-financed program to fund insurance for those living in poverty and without the income needed to access the AMO.

The private insurance sector, which people often choose simply due to availability, is a system based on a fee-for-service policy. For whatever the service may be, private insurance requires the individual to pay a minimum of 20% of the fees due. However, fees sometimes range as high as 50%.

Morocco’s health insurance system guarantees free care to anyone. However, it is specifically free for anyone living in poverty at any clinic that Morocco’s government runs, as long as the clinics obtain a certificat d’indigence. Thankfully, the poverty rate in Morocco is as low as 3.6%. However, health care remains concentrated in the cities leaving the rural population without easy access to health care.

The rural population often remains uncovered and without the funds to be a part of the private insurance operations. The impending health insurance expansion promises to cover the rural workers. This will ease the economic burden of health insurance from their income.

Impending Expansion of the System

The expansion to cover more workers is not the first one the government has made since 2019. In 2020, the Moroccan government expanded its health insurance system to cover all costs, for every citizen, for COVID-19 treatment. The treatment coverage is available through the AMO.

Morocco’s health insurance system will expand pending the implementation of six drafted policy proposals. The overarching plan for Morocco’s health insurance system is to generalize all health insurance for uncovered workers. The first step in this plan is the creation of coverage beginning with the farmers in the outlying reaches of Morocco, the taxi drivers in the cities and the artisans spread around the country.

The Need for Health Insurance in Rural Communities in Morocco

Morocco’s rural and farming areas are often unconsidered, with doctors and clinics needing to open in said rural areas. The average salary of a Moroccan farmer is 11,700 Moroccan Dirham (MAD) per month, which translates to slightly more than $1,200.

Unfortunately, since the AMO did not cover the farmers, the farmers were often unable to afford private insurance due to having little income to spare. Therefore, with the flexibility of the cost of services due, the farmers could not risk paying anything that might exceed their income.

The Single Professional Contribution System (SPC)

The farmers are only one of the groups that will benefit from the expanded insurance availability. The Moroccan health insurance system’s expansion also covers artisans, who are part of the Single Professional Contribution system (SPC). The SPC allows workers reliant on a flat rate of income to pay fixed taxes and receive health insurance under the new expansion.

The workers who are part of the SPC do not have high incomes and often live on less than the living minimum wage. Much like the farmers, the AMO would not consider them, leaving them unable to afford the private insurance system.

The Moroccan health insurance system’s expansion allows access to basic health care that many could not access before. The government is increasing the annual amount spent on health care as well. The private and public systems will receive additional funding to hire more doctors. Hopefully, more clinics will open in the rural areas to help these newly insured farmers and rural dwellers.

The Moroccan health insurance system will help both the individual and the public. Expanded health insurance could reduce debt, both health-related and non-health-related. It could permit more opportunities to spend money in the local economy.

Increased economic flow can increase income and wages for all business sectors, including the lower-paid individuals, like the farmers. It can also decrease the poverty rate and the number of individuals at risk of poverty.

– Clara Mulvihill
Photo: Pixabay

Impact of COVID-19 in Tajikistan Tajikistan is a Central Asian country landlocked between Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Uzbekistan. It is among the most impoverished countries in the world, with 26.3% of its population living below the poverty line in 2019. This high poverty rate persists as a consequence of modern political instability and a civil war that erupted after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the Tajikistani Civil War, the national poverty rate has shrunk as the country recovered, but the impact of COVID-19 in Tajikistan has added to the financial stressors that many citizens face.

5 Facts About the Impact of COVID-19 in Tajikistan

  1. The Numbers: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Tajikistan reported 17,493 COVID-19 cases from Jan. 3, 2020, to Jan. 21, 2022. From Jan. 18, 2021, to June 21, 2021, there were no reports of new cases in the nation. On Jan. 26, 2021, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon claimed that the country was “without COVID-19” in an address to parliament, asserting that the nation noted “no new cases” in the month of January. However, the Ministry of Health did in fact report new cases in January, a fact backed up by WHO data. The disease continued to spread for a few months longer, with the last new cases occurring on Sept. 13, 2021. Out of all the nation’s total confirmed cases, Tajikistan notes 125 deaths.
  2. Vaccines: In July 2021, Tajikistan made COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for all citizens of at least 18 years old. As of Jan. 2, 2022, Tajikistan has administered a total of 6.8 million doses, allowing for the full vaccination of roughly 3 million citizens, equating to 31.27% of Tajikistan’s overall population. In order to increase its overall vaccination rate, authorities aim “to expand their communication activities to address vaccine hesitancy and misinformation” related to the COVID-19 vaccine with the support of the World Bank.
  3. Remittances: The influx of remittances to Tajikistan fell at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many citizens choose to leave the country to earn an income as migrant workers and send money back to their family members back in Tajikistan. In fact, “Tajikistan is one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world,” with this form of monetary exchange accounting for around 28% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018. However, the value of remittances fell in the wake of COVID-19 to 26% in 2020. Economic crises and travel restrictions led to fewer remittances, especially due to the stringent regulations in Russia and other nearby countries where Tajikistani migrants often seek work. As a result, during the first half of 2020, remittances shrunk by close to 15% ($195 million) in comparison to the first half of 2019. In conjuncture with the other impacts of COVID-19 in Tajikistan, like the rising prices of agricultural goods, this fall in household income served to exacerbate poverty and heighten food insecurity in Tajikistan, with 33% of households reporting “reduced food consumption” as of August 2021.
  4. U.S. Foreign Aid: Responding to the negative effects of the pandemic, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) supplied significant amounts of aid to Tajikistan, including “1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine” in July 2021 and “325,260 doses of the Pfizer vaccine” in September 2021. In addition, USAID efforts include significant assistance to bolster Tajikistan’s health care systems and the capacity of its medical labs, public health outreach programs and community engagement. By March 2021, USAID had provided more than $10 million in aid to strengthen the country’s health care system and mitigate the financial impacts of COVID-19 in Tajikistan. Furthermore, as COVID-19 “disrupted import/export transport,” USAID has “launched an online freight portal” to help traders communicate and also created “a hotline to help traders and exporters locate the latest information about new import and transit procedures.”
  5. International Aid: Tajikistan also received support from other countries and international organizations. On Dec. 22, 2021, the World Bank approved a grant adding $25 million to the Tajikistan Emergency COVID-19 Project. The money will go to necessary medical resources, such as safety boxes, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests, vaccine cards and other supplies. The grant will also cover the cost of vaccine distribution and official communication efforts to combat medical misinformation.

Looking Forward

Although the impact of COVID-19 in Tajikistan will likely continue to affect the nation’s economy, the country has not noted any new COVID-19 cases since 2021. Currently, COVID-19 cases remain under control despite concerns over the newly emerging Omicron variant. International organizations are continuing their efforts to improve Tajikistan’s economic resilience and strengthen its health sector. As a result of diminishing cases and international assistance, experts predict that the economy will continue to grow throughout 2022 despite ongoing challenges.

– Lauren Sung
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mitigate Poverty in South Asia
More than 33% of people living in extreme poverty globally reside in South Asia. The poorest countries in the region, Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan presented GDP per capita rates of $544, $972 and $1,555. Respectively, this is a result of issues across these countries such as poor infrastructure, poor economic practices, political uncertainty and poverty. For many countries in South Asia, like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the COVID-19 caused millions of people to fall back into poverty. Policymakers must now reverse the increased food and commodity prices that result in economic insecurities in order to mitigate poverty in South Asia.

Pre-Pandemic Progress

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Asia countries made “significant progress” to help communities move out of poverty. Between 1990 and 2015, its poverty rate declined from 52% to 17%. The Asian Development Bank has projected that the trade-dependent economies of Southeast Asia will recover from the effects of the pandemic, growing to 5.1% in 2022 from 4.4% in 2021, therefore, helping to mitigate poverty in South Asia.

There are multiple reasons why South Asian countries have high levels of poverty and low GDP rates. According to The Conversation, governments do not allocate enough state resources on social development, such as education and health. In addition, “limited effectiveness” goes into delivering public services to the communities, such as health and education, or implementing policies to reduce poverty.

Further, government investment to improve public services, such as making tax systems more efficient and increasing vaccine availability in local health services, would improve the nation’s economy and help mitigate poverty levels. Countries with higher levels of state capacity have done relatively better to control the spread of COVID-19 and reduce mortality rates.

The World Bank Strategy

Now, the “impressive” reduction in poverty can connect to South Asia’s growing economy, as it is the world’s second-fastest-growing economy. According to the U.N. Chronicle, “India, Bangladesh and Nepal lowered their poverty rates by 7%, 9% and 11%” in the 1990s. India is South Asia’s largest economy and could grow by 8.3% in the 2021-2022 fiscal year with aid from public investment and incentives to boost manufacturing.

International organizations aided South Asia nations during the pandemic. They ensured the nations were able to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and limit the number of people vulnerable to poverty. For example, the World Bank focused on promoting inclusive and sustainable growth, investing in people and strengthening resilience in South Asia.

The World Bank also provided $922 million to purchase and deploy COVID-19 vaccines in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, the World Bank supported efforts to implement nutrition-sensitive cash transfers for the most vulnerable populations and policy actions to help put children back in school. Meanwhile, a COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health System Preparedness Project is working on multiple projects, including equipping hospitals as pandemic response centers in Sri Lanka.

Additionally, in Nepal, the World Bank focused on the agriculture sector by allocating $80 million to strengthen rural market linkages and promote entrepreneurship. International efforts are a vital resource to help mitigate poverty in South Asia.

If policymakers allocate resources toward programs that help sustain their growing economy and mitigate the negative results of COVID-19, South Asia communities could have a better chance of avoiding poverty.

– Makena Roberts
Photo: Flickr

The Maasai
When the COVID-19 pandemic decimated Kenya’s tourism industry and forced the closures of livestock markets, food insecurity became a reality for many of the Maasai people. Here is information about how the Maasai of Kenya are facing hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Heart of Kenya’s Tourist Industry

Traditionally, the Maasai people’s pastoral life meant there was no need for the modernities of money. Cattle stood as a source of both food and currency, with Maasai livelihoods depending exclusively on the tribe’s “cattle economy.” However, as prolonged droughts ravage grazing lands and privatization and wildlife conservation lead to the displacement of the Maasai, the tribe has had to supplement its semi-nomadic lifestyle with income from tourists: selling souvenirs, conducting safaris and guiding tours of Maasai villages.

Visitors travel to Kenya from all over the world to witness Africa’s wild animals, and when it comes to spectacles, the Maasai of Kenya have an advantage. The majority of tourists flock to the Maasai Mara National Park to witness a yearly phenomenon known as the Great Migration — the largest animal migration on earth. Although much of the migration takes place from the Serengeti in Tanzania, the most sought-after scene for nature enthusiasts occurs when the animals cross the crocodile-populated Mara River into Kenya.

Severe Weather and COVID-19 Create a Food Crisis

Prior to 2020, tourism accounted for 10% of Kenya’s economy, employing more than 2 million citizens, many of whom “lost their jobs due to the pandemic.” In March 2020, after Kenya’s first report of COVID-19, President Kenyatta canceled “all international flights scheduled to enter the country,” allowing access only to Kenyans or foreigners with permanent residency. Although the government’s efforts proved crucial in preventing the spread of the virus at the time, the result was an 80% plunge in Kenya’s tourism during 2020, causing an economic loss of more than $1 billion.

Exacerbating circumstances further, flash flooding in April 2020 and severe hailstorms in September 2020 followed the collapse of tourism. The deadly storm patterns led to severe crop destruction, damaging homes throughout southern and eastern Kenya, including Narok county, home to the Maasai Mara National Park.

Despite standing as a hub for Kenya’s tourism, Narok county has an absolute poverty rate of 33.7%, with 12% of the population enduring food insecurity and 32.9% of children experiencing stunting. During the pandemic, when government mandates included the closures of livestock markets and the Maasai lost all income from tourists, hunger became a reality for many of the Maasai who also could not afford to purchase hygiene products such as soaps and hand sanitizers.

Nashulai Maasai Conservancy Supports the Maasai

The Nashulai Maasai Conservancy protects 5,000 acres of critical habitat and is the only conservancy that the Massai people entirely govern and run. During the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of Nashulai organized a crowdfunding plan and sought the help of Avaaz, an international advocacy campaign that promotes community-organized humanitarian movements.

The campaign mobilized 100,000 people who helped to pay ranger salaries and secure sanitation, medical supplies and food for communities living within the conservancy. Recognizing a need to reduce the Maasai’s reliance on tourism, Nashulai also began training people in farming, beekeeping and making hygiene products such as soaps and sanitary pads to sell at local markets.

The Maa Trust

The Maa Trust is a nonprofit organization that partners with nature conservancies in the Maasai Mara region to “increase the benefits of wildlife conservation to Maasai families.” The organization promotes sustainable businesses for Maasai women, such as jewelry-making and honey production. The organization also supports conservation education, builds schools and invests in clean drinking water, solar energy and alternatives to using firewood as fuel.

In April 2020, The Maa Trust partnered with the Mara Elephant Project to distribute food donations from the Sidekick Foundation to 637 Maasai families “in the Talek and Pardamat regions of the Maasai Mara.” The Sidekick Foundation is an international force that works both on the ground and politically to combat poaching, collaborating with organizations such as The Maa Trust and the Mara Elephant Project to protect elephants and aid local humanitarian efforts.

The Rotary Club of Nome Assists

In November 2021, the Rotary Club of Nome, Alaska, worked with local contacts in Narok, Kenya, to provide a month of food security to 450 residents in the Maasai village of Nkorkorri. The project to assist Nkorkorri village stands as part of the Rotary Club of Nome’s 75-year commitment to humanitarianism. The Rotary Club of Nome is part of a worldwide network of more than 1.4 million Rotarians who work together to reduce poverty, fight diseases, support local economies and protect the environment.  In an interview with The Borgen Project, club member Marcy O’Neil says that Nome Rotarians hope to turn this emergency donation into a long-term program.

Although tourism has helped the Maasai survive in a challenging economic landscape, the industry’s fall during the COVID-19-pandemic put a spotlight on the tribe’s increasing vulnerability. As a result, organizations are answering the call for help. Whether the support comes from near or far, ongoing efforts to assist the Maasai are crucial to ensure the tribe’s ability to survive while maintaining traditional values.

– Jenny Rice
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19’s Impact on Ireland
After introducing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, Ireland ranked first on Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking in September 2021. According to the Financial Post, “Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking scores the largest 53 economies on their success at containing the virus with the least amount of social and economic disruption.” Ireland’s high vaccination rates and economic plans likely contribute to it securing the first-place ranking. By September 10, 2021, 90% of Ireland’s adult population was fully vaccinated. However, as Ireland slowly eases its restrictions, there are concerns that COVID-19’s impact on Ireland may be lasting.

COVID-19’s Far-Reaching Impact

By November 27, 2021, Ireland reported more than 556,000 COVID-19 cases and 5,652 deaths. However, the death toll is not the only measurement of COVID-19’s impact on Ireland. As the government attempts to combat the pandemic, there is evidence that COVID-19 also impacts Ireland in several other ways:

  1. High unemployment rates plague Ireland. In 2020, the unemployment rate in Ireland reached an all-time high of 31.5%. However, despite COVID-19’s impact on Ireland last year, unemployment has dropped to 7.9% in October 2021. Ireland’s Finance Ministry estimates that the rate will reduce further to 7.2% in 2022.
  2. COVID-19 harshly impacts certain industries. Across the world, the tourism and hospitality sectors faced the most severe impacts of COVID-19. Border closures, travel restrictions and limitations on gatherings significantly impact these sectors. According to the Northern Ireland Hotel Federation, in April 2020, about 90% of hotel staff in Northern Ireland were “furloughed or laid off.”
  3. COVID-19 impacts education in Ireland. In September 2021, Irish schools noted a high absence of school children due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases. In the second week of September alone, 12,000 children in Ireland missed school because of close contact with COVID-19 positive individuals. One official describes the school system as “overwhelmed,” prompting the Northern Ireland Assembly to schedule an urgent meeting to address the situation.
  4. Ireland’s health care system is under pressure. A sudden surge in COVID-19 cases has led to absent health care workers. In October 2021, approximately 2,700 infected health workers did not attend work due to COVID-19. The decreasing staff numbers in hospitals has major consequences. Hospitals across Ireland had to cancel more than 400 medical procedures in October 2021 due to staff shortages.

A Hopeful Look to the Future

Despite COVID-19’s Impact on Ireland, hope is on the horizon. In June 2021, the Irish government revealed its National Economic Recovery Plan. The plan commits €3.6 billion to assist employees and businesses enduring the harsh impacts of COVID-19. The plan also involves “a phased ending to pandemic unemployment payments, property tax increases for some and an emphasis on the green economy.”

One of the plan’s most salient features is its attempt to combat the unemployment rate. The plan extends the Public Employment service, increasing its caseload by 100,000 per year. The strategy also supports the upskilling and reskilling of the labor force. The plan also seeks to increase incentives for recruiting unemployed youth.

In October 2021, the Irish unemployment rate fell to a level of 10%, which is the nation’s lowest rate since the inception of the pandemic. The represents a sharp decline from not just the previous month’s 12.4% unemployment rate but also the 31% all-time high from the previous year. In addition, the youth unemployment rate is falling and the Central Bank predicts that Ireland’s recovery plan could create 160,000 jobs before the end of 2023.

– Richard J. Vieira
Photo: Flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic has diverted the world’s attention from the spread of other infectious diseases across the globe. However, the battle of the Malaysian government against other infectious diseases has never stopped. According to Health Minister Dr. Adham Baba, despite the pandemic, efforts to prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases in Malaysia are still ongoing. In fact, as of March 2020, the government has updated The Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (Measures within the Infected Local Areas) Regulations to better coordinate the measures it was implementing between controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and the transmission of other infectious diseases in Malaysia. Here is information about three infectious diseases impacting Malaysia as well as how the country is dealing with them.

Dengue Fever

Dengue fever has existed in Malaysia since 1902 when reports of the first case emerged. The bite of infectious mosquitoes spreads dengue fever, resulting in it affecting a large fraction of the population in Malaysia. Most affected are those living in impoverished areas because they have an abundance of stagnant water bodies that are ideal for the breeding of Aedes mosquitoes.

Surprisingly though, from January to August 2021, the Malaysian government reported only a total of 16,565 dengue cases as compared to the 63,988 cases in 2020. With an approximately 94% decrease in the total number of dengue cases across the nation, the government is optimistic about continuing and committing to the current effective measures, maintaining overall cleanliness in residential areas as well as public spaces with frequent mosquito fogging operations.

Tuberculosis (TB)

Tuberculosis (TB) is an air-borne infection affecting the lungs. Like dengue, it is also one of the most common infectious diseases primarily impacting those living under the strain of poverty in Malaysia. Overcrowded and poorly ventilated residential areas facilitate TB in low-cost flats all around Malaysia. On average, the number of cases documented throughout the nation has fluctuated and varied in its trend but up to 2019, around 92 in 100, 000 people have been diagnosed in Malaysia.

In Selangor alone, more than 3,500 cases have also been reported in 2020, making it essential for public awareness programs and governmental allocations to be implemented to mitigate the spread of this infectious disease in Malaysia. At the moment, the Malaysian Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis (MAPTB) is diligent in its efforts to educate the public on TB prevention and provide financial aids to diagnose and treat individuals from higher-risk groups. MAPTB is gradually making progress in educating the public about proper prevention methods and ultimately controlling the spread of TB in the country. Its plan is to do this through various online forums, conferences, newsletters and collaborations with Malaysian NGOs.

Hepatitis B

The Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is most commonly transmitted through infected blood products and unprotected sex. Affecting more than 1 million people nationwide, Hepatitis B causes acute and chronic liver infections particularly in male adults between the age of 30 to 49. In rural areas with little to no access to health care, the adverse environmental conditions and lack of proper treatment among the infected are exacerbating the infection rate of HBV.

With the hopes of eradicating the threat this infectious disease poses to the country, the Malaysian government has been proactively working toward a strategic and sustainable plan to combat the spread of HBV in Malaysia via the National Strategic Plan for Hepatitis B and C (NSPHBC) to strengthen national policies regarding prevention measures, control of transmission and the diagnosis, treatment and care of patients with the virus. By 2030, the government hopes to reduce the number of new viral hepatitis cases in Malaysia by 90% with proper diagnoses and treatment methods. This includes encompassing free HBV vaccination programs as well as mandated education for children and teenagers throughout the nation.

Solutions for Infectious Diseases Impacting Malaysia

In partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), Malaysia used to receive generous financial support from countries like Japan, Denmark and Germany up until 1998. However, the country is receiving little to no direct aid to the health sector since 2000. In regards to professional and technical development, WHO remains active in providing medical fellowships and training to health care workers in Malaysia. It is also contributing invaluable advice on disease control and specialized support for disease outbreaks in the country.

Various local NGOs such as the Consumers’ Association of Penang are also supportive in their efforts to fund novel research projects aiming to create new solutions that could mitigate the spread of infectious diseases across the country better than existing strategies.

The Future

All things considered, the Malaysian government is slowly gaining a foothold in the uphill battle of preventing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases in the country. While the future remains unknown, the Ministry of Health is resilient in its implementation of more sustainable health care policies. It is also working on the development of systems to aid in the recovery of the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia.

With the help of WHO and several significant NGOs across the nation, it is only a matter of time before Malaysia can truly gain control over the spread of infectious diseases. The country should effectively manage diseases’ effects on the country’s politics and the economy as a whole.

Low Xin Yi
Photo: Unsplash

COVID-19 Antiviral Pill
The developing world is fighting for greater access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. If regulatory bodies approve it, a new COVID-19 antiviral pill called molnupiravir could bring relief in the next year because it would be affordable, easy to distribute and easy to administer. Approval is all but guaranteed, however, several NGOs and manufacturers are jumping into high gear to help ensure equitable access to the drug throughout the world.

The Current Situation

No nation, no matter how wealthy, is exempt from the heartache and struggle that COVID-19 brought. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COVID-19 has led to the deaths of more than five million people worldwide. In addition to the many lives lost, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has also left many survivors with long-lasting negative health effects. Then, there is the economic toll — experts consider the global economic contraction that the pandemic caused to be the most severe since the aftermath of World War II.

Now, nearly a year after the arrival to the market of the first COVID-19 vaccines, the developed world is wondering if the end is near — if the world can get back to a pre-pandemic sense of normal. However, in the developing world, the end does not appear to be near because many developing countries have yet to gain adequate access to vaccines. For instance, in September 2021, WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “more than 5.7 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally, but only 2% of them in Africa.” Africa, however, makes up nearly 16% of the global population, making it clear that the push for vaccine equity must continue.

However, the developing world is now finding some hope in a COVID-19 antiviral pill that a partnership between Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics brought to market. Researchers invented the drug, called molnupiravir, at Emory University with research funding from the U.S. government. In the Phase 3 clinical study, the pill proved efficient in reducing risks of hospitalization and death by 50% in at-risk individuals when administered before symptoms increase in severity. Following these promising outcomes, Merck has applied for Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so that it can bring this promising COVID-19 antiviral pill to the market as soon as possible.

3 Advantages of Molnupiravir for the Developing World

  1. Affordability. Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics have agreed to license the production of their COVID-19 antiviral pill to several generic drug manufacturers in India. In addition, they have signed a royalty-free licensing agreement with the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP). The agreement remains valid so long as WHO classifies COVID-19 as a global public health emergency. MPP will sublicense production of the molnupiravir to qualifying generic drug manufacturers in the developing world. In turn, those manufacturers will be free to market the drug to a collection of 105 low- to middle-income countries for around $20 per five-day course of treatment. For reference, in its initial purchase agreement for the drug, the U.S. government agreed to pay about 35 times as much per treatment.
  2. Ease of Distribution. Depending on the brand, COVID-19 vaccines require either freezing or refrigeration up until the time of administration. The Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine even requires sub-zero freezing at -80℃ to -60℃, thus requiring specialized sub-zero freezers. These cold storage requirements for vaccines, while not insurmountable, do provide logistics challenges for the delivery of vaccines in rural areas of low-to-middle-income countries (LMICs). On the other hand, molnupiravir is shelf-stable, meaning its attributes allow for safe storage at room temperature. This element will make distribution much easier in LMICs with limited cold storage facilities.
  3. Ease of Administration. Even in high-income countries, there are many accounts of hospitals stretching themselves dangerously thin on resources because of aggressive surges in infections. The limited clinical capacity of LMICs means that the ideal COVID-19 therapeutic would allow for home-based patient administration instead of clinical administration. Because molnupiravir is an oral medication that is shelf-stable, it would meet this need.

Improving Production Capacity

There is some concern that ongoing COVID-19-induced supply chain disruptions could interfere with the mass global production capacity of molnupiravir should the disruptions result in inadequate supplies of the base ingredients needed for manufacture. For its part, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $120 million to help ensure equitable distribution of molnupiravir. Part of the initiative is to fund research to look into the most efficient and streamlined manufacturing methods to maximize the production capacity of the drug. These efforts bring hope that production capacity goals will meet their mark. Only time will tell, but for many in the developing world, molnupiravir may bring COVID-19 relief before vaccines do.

– Jeramiah Jordan
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Digital Gap
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has provided solutions to many of our current problems. As the pandemic prevented us from meeting in person, schools and businesses took to the internet for a new way of working together. Shockingly, as almost half of the world lacks access to the internet, COVID-19 also amplified the digital gap.

The Digital Gap

According to a recent United Nations International Children’s Fund – International Telecommunications Union (UNICEF-ITU) report, two-thirds of the world’s school-aged children do not have internet access at home. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of children are still relying on online learning due to the pandemic, and lack of internet access prevents these children from receiving an education.

The digital gap further highlights class divides. Rural and lower-income students struggle more than urban and students from higher-income households. Fifty-eight percent of school-aged children from the richest households have internet access at home, while only 16% of the poorest students have access. This means that the education of 1.3 billion children education is at risk.

Additionally, the majority of those without internet access are in the poorest countries. These are also the countries where access to information on COVID-19 may be most important. According to the World Bank, 85% of Africans live on less than $5.50 a day. In Africa, one gigabyte of data costs nearly 8% of the average income. For reference, one gigabyte is enough data to stream a standard definition film for one hour.

During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis reinforces social inequality for those with insecure jobs and jobs in public settings. It also amplifies the gap between those living in packed housing communities and those with no health insurance. In turn, the digital gap worsens the effects of COVID-19. Without internet access, people are unable to find current and vital information on the disease and how to handle it. Those without access are also prevented from communicating with others about the pandemic. The pandemic most heavily affects the elderly, unemployed and uneducated who are the groups who use the internet the least.

How to Close the Digital Gap

In order to protect children’s education and to allow poor people a better chance to compete in the modern economy, it is essential to close the digital gap. To address this issue, the world must also address the issues of global poverty and weak infrastructure.

The affordability of internet access is a major factor in the digital gap. Personal devices including laptops and smartphones are costly. Further, taxes, patent fees and electricity make them even more expensive. Financing people who cannot afford technology is one path to address this issue. Implementing tariff subsidies that lower the domestic price is a second possibility.

Additionally, the public needs an education about the value and resources of the internet, and the internet needs to be relevant and accessible. First, people also need to learn how to properly use it. Due to lack of relevance, people struggle to find online content, services or applications in their primary language. In rural and poor areas, many people lack the education to understand much of the content online. In a World Economic Forum meeting, Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), emphasized the importance of making technology that is inclusive.

Giga: A Program to Close the Gap

In 2019, UNICEF and ITU launched a global initiative called Giga. Giga has the goal of providing every school and its surrounding community with access to the internet. Giga has collaborated with governments to collect data and map out over 800,000 schools in 30 countries. Using this information, Giga works with governments, industries and private sector partners to create investment cases for blended public-private funding. This public-private funding will be used to build the needed connectivity infrastructures.

The digital gap is a crisis that highlights class divisions; lack of access to sufficient technology puts people at a disadvantage. COVID-19 has amplified the gap, but it has also accelerated the digital transition because it has made collaborations to close the digital gap that much more urgent. Giga and similar global initiatives that foster public-private funding have great promise to spearhead the digital gap closure. They also have the promise to transition the world to more inclusive technology.

– Jacqueline Zembek
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19 in Brazil
COVID-19 devastated Brazil. The country lost 600,000 lives to the pandemic. In addition, COVID-19 in Brazil has had significant adverse effects on the economy. With few to no opportunities for work and businesses thrust into bankruptcy, Brazil’s population’s quality of life has also greatly diminished. For example, COVID-19 in Brazil thwarted tourism, subsequently affecting its festive, vibrant Carnaval season. In addition, Brazil is also one of the nations with the most significant disparity in both wealth and class, and COVID-19 in Brazil exasperated those gaps. With COVID-19 bringing such monumental difficulties to Brazil, the prospect of Brazil’s financial stability post COVID seems slim. However, one man’s organization seeks to alleviate some of the hunger-based sufferings from COVID-19 in Brazil.

COVID-19’s Effect on Poverty and Hunger in Brazil

COVID-19 in Brazil has had an undeniably terrible impact on the families living in poverty.  The country had been in a recession since 2014 and had not recovered when COVID-19 hit. That is part of the reason why in 2020, food insecurity threatened approximately 117 million citizens, more than half of the country’s population. That was an increase from 85 million in 2018. That is why the Brazilian government introduced emergency programs to keep families afloat. However, when payments reduced in 2021, even more people started to go hungry. In fact, about 19 million Brazilians have gone hungry in 2021 compared to 10 million in 2018. Brazil’s COVID-induced food insecurity and hunger prompted David Hertz to launch the Gastromotiva Solidarity Kitchen Program.

The Development of Gastromotiva

Local leaders, microentrepreneurs and cooks operate the Gastromotiva Solidarity Kitchens. Community kitchens distribute meals to individuals and families at risk for food insecurity. However, the Gastromotiva Solidarity Kitchen Program does more than just build kitchens and donate food. First, Gastromotiva provides a monthly income to Solidarity Kitchen employees. It also provides guidance in logistics and menu planning. Third, Gastromotiva runs Social Cooking,”  a course that teaches employees how to create businesses, projects and initiatives with social impact. In other words, not only is Gastromotiva providing direct hunger relief, but it also seeks to create more long-term opportunities for financial stability.

Solidarity Kitchen Success

Since launching in 2020, Gastromotiva has opened more than 70 Solidatarity Kitchens in key communities including Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Manaus. The Solidarity Kitchens provide more than 70,000 meals each month. Often, recipients get their only meal each day at a Solidarity Kitchen. As Hertz comments, “Right now half the population in Brazil doesn’t know if they are going to have lunch or dinner. That’s the size of the problem. We are not only feeding those people once a day, we are providing nutrition with dignity that is deserved.”

Post-Pandemic Outlook

Although Hertz created the Gatromotivia Solidarity Kitchen Program as a response to COVID-19 in Brazil, he hopes to continue the program beyond the pandemic. He is developing a new, self-sustaining version of the Solidarity Kitchen, and ultimately, Hertz envisions 1,000 Solidarity Kitchens across Brazil.

– Maia Nuñez
Photo: Flickr

Taxi Gardens in Thailand
Since January 13, 2020, COVID-19 played a significant role in disrupting Thailand’s economy. Financial hardship in Thailand was undeniable. The World Bank has indicated that if the country’s government had not introduced socially and fiscally restorative programs, about 700,000 citizens would have fallen into poverty. While Thailand’s economy has essentially stabilized, one occupation has struggled to land back on its feet–or, behind the wheel. This occupation’s struggle led to the incredible innovation of taxi gardens in Thailand.

The Effects of COVID-19 on Taxi Services

Along with the curfew implemented on April 3, 2020, Thailand made multiple attempts to control the spread of COVID-19. However, because everyone stayed at home working or learning remotely, taxicab drivers experienced a slowed revenue stream. Because no one traveled, these drivers could not afford the daily payments of their vehicles. Instead, they used their funds to take care of their families. As a result of COVID-19, financial hardship in Thailand certainly impacted the economy and put several businesses in financial jeopardy. Taxicab owners suffered a significant dwindling in their source income, leaving them to make a tough decision regarding their cars.

Because of the decline in fares, taxicab drivers from the Ratchapruk and Bovorn Taxi Cooperatives could not afford to make payments for their vehicles. The corporation’s executive, Thapakorn Assawalertkul, described how drivers left their cars on the streets even after the vehicles’ daily payments dropped to $9.09. Thailand’s government provided financial assistance to businesses, but not cab drivers. Cab drivers sacrificed their livelihoods and received little to no government assistance during the pandemic. The government introduced specific aid programs for many corporations, such as lengthening credit for hotel operators to deter them from liquidating their assets. However, there is still an evident disparity in financial stability for other livelihoods.

The Benefits of Taxi Gardens in Thailand

A few workers from these taxi companies started turning the standing vehicles into sustainable gardens. The crops, such as string beans and tomatoes, grow from the roof of these idled vehicles. As of September 22, 2021, cab drivers transformed approximately 300 cars into planters. The taxi gardens provide food for the drivers and their families to make up for their lack of revenue. They also serve an artistic purpose. Taxi gardens in Thailand are symbolic of the unfortunate circumstances of the nation’s taxicab industry in the wake of the pandemic. The companies’ staff tend the gardens in turns, a poignant reminder of their concern for their lost livelihoods and lack of societal or governmental initiative.

A Symbol of Resilience

The artistic and overarching theme of unity explored with this collage of taxicab crops is impressive. Taxi gardens in Thailand illustrate the beauty that comes from a concerned and considerate community. It is also worth noting the sustainable usage of these idled vehicles. However, many workers who tend to these gardens explain that they would like to see the government play a more active role in alleviating their financial stress and stagnance. With such an eye-grabbing display as this, it may not be long before Thailand’s taxicab drivers receive proper attention as a symbol of financial hardship in Thailand.

– Maia Nuñez
Photo: Flickr