This has by all means been a difficult year. The pandemic has not only wreaked havoc on our lives, it has also upended much of the developmental progress that had been achieved in the past few decades.
Among the worst hit have been individuals and households living in poverty, whose livelihoods are often heavily dependent on informal sector jobs and who typically cannot access good quality healthcare.
There is now widespread concern that world poverty has increased in 2020 and that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The initial lockdown strategies adopted by countries around the world had varying effects. While East Asia achieved impressive success, attempts to keep the pandemic under control fared poorly in the United States and in parts of Europe. Many African countries, with weak health systems, felt that there was no option but to enforce strict lockdowns.
In hindsight, such stringent measures exacerbated the vulnerabilities of poor and marginalised groups who, unlike better-off households, do not have the luxury of large savings or jobs that can be performed from home. India is an illustrative example of a rushed lockdown that did not necessarily achieve the intended results.
Initially, there was considerable worldwide praise and indeed amazement at the country’s decisive leadership that enforced a lockdown with four hours’ notice. But hundreds of millions of Indians rely on informal sector jobs, and the country’s economy shrank by almost 25 percent in the first quarter of 2020.
But not all predictions came true. I was in Malawi in February and March and recall the numerous predictions by Western experts who feared that sub-Saharan Africa would be the hardest hit region. There were indeed ample grounds for worry, especially since the health sector in Malawi and elsewhere in the region is severely under-funded.
But nine months later, the African continent has defied great odds and the pandemic has not claimed as many lives as some had predicted. Among the explanations offered for this achievement has been Africa’s considerable experience in tackling Ebola just as East Asia’s prior experience of combating Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).
And although a second wave may present renewed challenges, perhaps an important lesson to take forward is for countries to adopt nationally and locally appropriate measures rather than simply copying what others are doing.
As 2020 draws to a close, there are growing hopes of a return to normalcy pinned on vaccines.
While such scientific breakthroughs must be celebrated, there is the fear that vaccinating the world’s population, especially in low-income countries, will take many years. I hope such predictions are wrong.
Thanks for reading my column in 2020. Happy New Year!