COVID-19 and poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The intersection of COVID-19 and poverty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has worsened health and economic crises. In 2019, after years of political dissent, Félix Tshisekedi became president of the DRC. Prior to 2019, the nation had faced human rights violations as the previous president, Joseph Kabila, delayed elections and violently squandered peaceful protests to maintain his power beyond the constitutional two-term limit. Kabila killed hundreds of civilians in his quest to stay in power. Rebel groups have also displaced citizens and targeted healthcare workers for decades. Because of those groups and a new and fragile government, the DRC was particularly vulnerable to both COVID-19 and high poverty rates. Here is some information about the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in the DRC.

COVID-19 and Poverty in the DRC

When the coronavirus first appeared in the DRC, restrictions provided hope that conflicts would pause in the name of public health. However, rather than being able to safely receive necessary medical attention, persisting conflicts displaced at least 300,000 Congolese in Ituri Province. The mass displacement of Congolese made social distancing guidelines difficult to uphold, increasing individuals’ susceptibility to the virus. As of July 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported there have been 43,333 confirmed coronavirus cases and 973 deaths in the DRC since January 2020.

The pandemic reinforced the link between poverty and disease in the DRC. The DRC has the third-largest population of people in poverty globally – an estimated 73% of Congolese lived on less than $1.90 per day in 2018. Furthermore, particularly high numbers of people in the eastern part of the country are battling preexisting conditions ranging from diabetes and high blood pressure to Ebola, putting them at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19. In a study of 766 COVID-19 cases in the DRC, only 2.6% of patients with mild or moderate health conditions died from the virus, compared with 45% of patients with a severe condition. The DRC’s struggle against other public health issues exacerbates the threat of COVID-19, especially among those living in poverty.

Economic Growth During COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the threat of increased COVID-19 cases and deaths, the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in the DRC has thus far been drastic. In 2020, the unemployment rate reached 4.6%, a 10.17% jump from the previous year. As of October 2020, expectations determined that COVID-19 would push approximately 4 million people into poverty by the end of that year.

The DRC’s rate of economic growth fell from 4.4% before the pandemic to 0.8% in 2020. The contribution of extractive industries such as mining to the DRC’s economic growth fell from 0.28% in 2019 to 0.17% in 2020. Attempts to contain the virus via government restrictions also impacted the manufacturing and commerce sectors. According to the African Development Bank Group, non-extractive sectors’ contribution to economic growth fell from 4.1% in 2019 to -1.9% in 2020. However, recent analyses are pointing toward a relatively quick recovery in 2021 and 2022.

Vaccine Rollout in the DRC

Vaccine rollouts are increasing globally, a trend that predictions have determined could continue. At the G7 Summit in 2021, the United States shared its plan to donate 19 million vaccine doses to the WHO initiative COVAX, which will distribute them to low- and middle-income countries. In March 2021, the DRC received 1.7 million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses from COVAX, but returned them due to potential health concerns. Around the same time, many European countries had also suspended the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of possible blood clots. In early July, the health minister of the DRC reported the country was in its third wave of COVID-19. Donating new vaccine doses to the DRC is vital.

Community Efforts to Increase Vaccination Rates

Even with vaccines available, Congolese must elect to receive them. Bélle-Surprise Makaya, a health worker native to North Kivu, advocates for vaccines in local communities. She and colleagues initiated their campaign in April 2021, when the first shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in the DRC.

Makaya recognizes many Congolese people’s anxiety about receiving the “jab.” She told Gavi, an organization that works to provide immunizations to low-income countries, that she is “committed to dispelling such hesitations.” Makaya notes that her coalition has led to higher turnout among local populations and not just healthcare workers.

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in the DRC has been drastic. However, initiatives like COVAX are providing vaccines, and Congolese people are learning why they should receive the vaccine. More vaccinations will not only slow the spread of the virus, but will also aid economic recovery as the country will spend less money on public health. Economic recovery is undoubtedly on the horizon in the DRC as long as vaccine rollout continues.

– Krystal Koski
Photo: Flickr

COVID-19 in South KoreaThe COVID-19 pandemic that began in late 2019 has impacted families, communities and society as a whole. The pandemic precautions have been a worldwide effort to keep everyone safe. In South Korea, there have been a total of 118,243 cases of COVID-19 as of April 2021. Of the 118,243 who tested positive, there have been 1,812 deaths but 107,781 individuals have recovered. The statistics show the persistent effort that is being demonstrated by the South Korean government to keep the country and its citizens safe.

COVID-19 in South Korea

South Korea has made it a priority to establish a system for the country and its citizens in order to keep everyone safe. In the early stages of COVID-19, South Korea made it a priority to mitigate the situation by distributing tests to as many people as possible. The results of the test, positive or negative, would gauge the severity of the outbreak. The goal was to have everyone quarantine so that the transmission of the virus, regardless of the positive or negative test result, would be slowed. The procedure that the South Korean officials followed was: test, trace and isolate. Within weeks of the first COVID-19 case, South Korea was the leading country in distributing tests. In perspective, by the end of April 2020, the United States had more than one million positive cases. South Korea had fewer than 11,000 cases. In the early stages of COVID-19, South Korea had 3,700 cases whereas the United States had 32. Managing the quick outbreak, and dealing with its repercussions was not easy for any country. However, South Korea was able to quickly formulate a system of test, trace and isolate. This helped lessen the number of lost lives.

Vaccine Efforts in South Korea

The creation and distribution of vaccines have been a large factor in the success that South Korea has seen in combatting COVID-19. South Korea has signed a contract with Pfizer to purchase another 40 million doses of its vaccine. Collectively, South Korea has 192 million doses of vaccines from Moderna, AstraZeneca PLC, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. The goal that South Korea had set was to have 70% of its citizens vaccinated with the first dose by November.

In order to obtain aid and assistance to receive these large quantities of vaccines, South Korea looks to the United States for help. South Korea provided assistance to the United States in the early stages of the pandemic with COVID-19 testing kits and face masks. Therefore, South Koreans hope for help from the United States in return. The U.S. State Department has made a statement regarding this vaccine alliance. The Department sees a possibility to help other countries increase their vaccine supplies but the citizens of the United States will be the priority.

Looking Ahead

South Korea was extremely successful in combating the virus at the beginning of the pandemic by acting quickly in response to testing and isolation. When no one knew how to handle the pandemic, South Korea stood as a strong example of how to minimize the effects of a global pandemic.

– Nicole Sung
Photo: Flickr

AstraZeneca's Role in the Global Vaccination EffortThe Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine made many controversial headlines in mid-March 2021 because of a suspected link between it and a rare and sometimes fatal blood clot that forms in the brain. However, the AstraZeneca vaccine will be a crucial part of the global vaccine rollout effort. Not only is it a safe and effective vaccine approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), but it may also be the best candidate to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable populations in developing countries. AstraZeneca’s role in the global vaccination effort is key in ensuring the global eradication of COVID-19.

The Science Behind the AstraZeneca Vaccine

The AstraZeneca vaccine is around 70% effective against COVID-19 with some studies suggesting it can be up to 90% effective. Although it is less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it is still more effective than what many experts anticipated any vaccine would be.

In mid-March, some European countries paused the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout based on claims that it caused a rare blood clot. A lack of evidence led every country to resume production and use of the vaccine. Out of 11 million people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine in the U.K., five people reported developing this blood clot. Though there has been no sufficient data to suggest any correlation, British officials and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will continue to monitor the vaccine in case of other side effects.

Because of its effectiveness against COVID-19, the AstraZeneca vaccine has joined the ranks of other WHO-approved vaccines, like Pfizer and Moderna. Here are some reasons why AstraZeneca is better than other vaccines in leading global vaccination efforts.

Benefits of AstraZeneca

  • Cost: The AstraZeneca vaccine will not be marked up. This means it will cost less than $5 per dose. By contrast, the Pfizer vaccine is $20 per dose, and the Moderna vaccine is around $35. This makes the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine a more feasible option for developing countries with limited funds.
  • Temperature: The AstraZeneca vaccine does not need to remain at the astronomically low temperatures the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require. Instead, it can stay at standard refrigeration levels for months. Thus, for developing countries, which often lack the distribution infrastructure and/or are very hot, the AstraZeneca vaccine is the ideal option.
  • Commitments: Oxford/AstraZeneca has already promised it will provide the developing world with more than a billion doses of the vaccine. Of that, 300 million vaccines will come through the WHO’s COVAX initiative. While Moderna has recently joined the COVAX initiative, the bulk of its agreement of 500 million doses will not be distributed until 2022. Pfizer has joined Oxford/AstraZeneca in the COVAX initiative.
  • Production: A major barrier to widespread vaccine rollout is that countries and companies often lack the infrastructure or ability to produce the vaccines fast enough. The solution would be for vaccine companies to relinquish intellectual property (like patents) to let others produce generic versions. Unlike other WHO-approved vaccines, AstraZeneca has shared its patent information with manufacturers in some low-income/developing counties that need the vaccine desperately, like India and Brazil.
  • Current events: In mid-February, COVAX supplied 600,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to Ghana. As of the beginning of March, Cote d’Ivoire also received and began rolling out approximately 500,000 vaccines from COVAX. The initiative is using AstraZeneca because it can be kept at a temperature that makes it a simpler vaccine to distribute. The AstraZeneca vaccines given to these two countries came from a factory in India.

Why is it Important to Vaccinate the World?

Developed countries cannot focus only on their own vaccination efforts and neglect the needs of low-to-middle-income countries. If vaccines do not reach developing countries effectively and quickly, these countries will face even more severe economic distress. This will worsen inequality between wealthy and impoverished nations. Until developing countries have significant access to vaccines, the global economy will lose around $150 billion in output every year. AstraZeneca’s role in the global vaccination effort is essential in ensuring this does not happen.

Additionally, many epidemiologists argue that developing countries must receive substantial amounts of the vaccine at the same time as wealthier countries for the global rollout to be the most successful. Otherwise, the virus will continue to spread and mutate, leaving the vaccine efforts in developing countries to be less effective.

President Biden recognizes that the U.S. population will not be safe from the pandemic if people in developing countries are not protected. Following this, Biden has promised that any surplus vaccine doses will go to developing counties. AstraZeneca’s role in the global vaccination effort is essential in ending the global pandemic and ensuring safety for all nations.

– Elyssa Nielsen
Photo: Flickr

Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution
Though vaccine development and vaccine distribution have made incredible strides in the past few decades, developing countries are still consistently behind as wealthier countries monopolize available vaccine resources. The most recent example of this monopolization is the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009 that killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. This problematic new strain emerged in April 2020, and the U.S. began distributing vaccines in October of that same year. Vaccines did not become available to countries in Africa until later that year, which is significant due to the fact that this influenza virus already hit peak infectivity before vaccines became available to developing nations. It is essential to consider how to ensure equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Analyzing the H1N1 pandemic provides scientists and citizens alike valuable insight into possible future complications that may arise with vaccine distribution in response to the far more deadly COVID-19 virus. The solution to providing more equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution for developing countries may lie in the innovative COVAX Pillar of the World Health Organization’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

What is COVAX?

The principal focus of COVAX is vaccine development and distribution, with the other two pillars focused more on the organization between governments, health organizations, vaccine manufacturers and other industries related to COVID-19 research. COVAX allows for countries to support and negotiate with vaccine developers, which provides necessary vaccines should these developers produce successful vaccines. The support of COVAX provides both wealthy and poor nations reassurance that as new vaccines become available, they will go to participating nations. As more vaccines develop and successfully pass through clinical trials, countries that participate in the COVAX alliance receive first priority to these vaccines. Wealthy nations that contribute money obtain more doses to reach a majority of their populations, whereas developing countries that do not directly fund this program receive vaccines for the most at-risk groups.

Wealthier countries have the ability to decide how much they would like to contribute towards developing countries. Providing funding for developing nations is an investment that will decrease global COVID-19 prevalence and therefore increase safety for each respective nation. Vaccines for developing countries also receive partial funding from the Gavi COVAX AMC, which has already raised over $2 billion, reaching the goal for the end of 2020. Even more promising is that in December 2020, the U.S. allocated $4 billion for this program in its COVID-19 relief package, bringing the total already much closer to the necessary $5 billion by the end of 2021.

As with the two current vaccines available in the United States, the first priority group for distribution in the COVAX program is frontline healthcare workers. This program plans to vaccinate at least 3% of each participating nation’s population. As availability continues to grow and new vaccines become available, distribution will increase to 20% of each population.

Reasons for Optimism

To ensure equitable distribution of vaccines when they do become available, the World Health Organization (WHO), GAVI and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations are developing an Independent Allocation of Vaccines Group (IAVG) comprised of experts to make these crucial decisions. These experts have the task of deciding the volume of vaccines that will go to each participating nation to provide valuable insight and decision-making without any conflict of interest. This cooperative effort is vital to the concept of equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution and will allow for the meeting of distribution goals.

In the latest news briefing on January 22, 2021, the COVAX alliance announced an agreement for the distribution of 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use. This 40 million adds to the 150 million of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccines that will undergo utilization upon completion of clinical trials. With the impressive goal to distribute two billion total vaccines by the end of 2021, this collaborative effort continues to promise 1.3 billion of those doses to the 92 lower-income economies participating in the alliance.

In summary, the COVAX pillar through the Gavi Alliance benefits both wealthy countries and developing countries. Wealthy countries obtain access to developing vaccines to provide a sense of security for their populations as these vaccines become available. In the case of developing countries, they save money on funding these vaccine developments and receive a guarantee they will obtain enough vaccines for the most at-risk groups at no charge or minimal charge. An alliance of this magnitude provides enough structure and funding to successfully promote equitable distribution that benefits all participating nations.

– Jackson Thennis
Photo: Flickr