UK aid layoff plans, COVID-19's 'new poor,' and vaccine access: This week in development

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A quality check at a packaging facility of Sinovac Biotech, a Chinese vaccine-maker developing an experimental COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by: Thomas Peter / Reuters

U.K. aid organizations report widespread layoffs, World Health Organization leaders discuss vaccine distribution plans, and the World Bank sheds light on “the new poor.” This week in development:

Economic fallout from the pandemic is hitting U.K. aid organizations hard, with 46% reporting that they either already have or expect to lay off staff members due to budget concerns. Of the organizations polled by Bond, a network for NGOs, 10% said they had or expected to have to make more than one-fifth of their workers redundant. The U.K. aid budget, which is tied to the country’s gross national income, has fallen £2.9 billion this year, and many organizations have seen their fundraising suffer at the same time they are faced with heightened demand for their work. Only 16% of respondents had implemented no cost-cutting measures. The survey suggested that bigger organizations have been hardest hit when it comes to job cuts, with 79% saying they either already had reduced staff size or intended to do so. That compares with 26% of small organizations. However, while just over half of NGOs surveyed said they expected they could continue working another two years on current funding projections, only 29% of small organizations thought they would survive the next 24 months under those conditions.

The World Health Organization’s executive board faced questions about vaccine allocation and the international health body’s reform efforts in a two-day, semivirtual meeting this week that some have criticized for excluding civil society representatives. While reiterating their support for COVAX, the vaccine access part of WHO’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, member states raised questions about how vaccine distribution would be determined under the initiative. Dr. Mariângela Simão, WHO assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, said WHO and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are currently working together on a proposal for a joint task force that will be responsible for the allocation proposals. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that even with an allocation framework, equitable distribution will require political buy-in. “Allocation is political. … We have the allocation framework, WHO and partners have developed [it, but] without political commitment, without political consensus, I don't think it can happen,” he said. The U.S. government, which has submitted its notification of withdrawal from WHO, nonetheless pressed for its reform priorities, insisting on the need to strengthen transparency and accountability, while alluding to its criticisms of China.

People pushed into extreme poverty by the COVID-19 pandemic are more likely to be urban, better educated, and working outside of agriculture, according to a report released this week by the World Bank. “Within countries, a large share of the extreme poor are rural, whereas many of the new poor are likely to live in congested urban settings, which can serve as a conduit for infection,” the bank’s “Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020” report reads. The characteristics of what the bank terms “the new poor” have implications for the types of policies that might be effective in limiting the social, health, and economic damage from COVID-19. Existing social safety nets might be targeted to reach rural people engaged in agriculture, for example, while those living in cities and working in informal sectors could be hardest hit by the pandemic. The report paints a grim picture of the combined impacts of COVID-19, conflict, and climate change on global efforts to reduce poverty and narrow economic inequality. It projects that more than 100 million people will be pushed below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day and that the economic consequences of the pandemic “will almost certainly be felt in most countries through 2030.” The report also projects that “132 million people may fall into poverty by 2030 due to the manifold effects of climate change.”

Researchers in India have developed a new, paper-based test for COVID-19 that some are hailing as a potential “game changer” for a country that has emerged as a new epicenter of the pandemic. The new test, named Feluda after a popular fictional Indian detective, uses the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to deliver faster results at a lower cost than the two other widely available tests. The test arrives alongside new data about how the coronavirus is spreading in the South Asian country, drawn from a massive study of 85,000 cases and nearly 600,000 contacts in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Among the most notable findings are that children appear to play a large role in spreading the virus, among themselves as well as to adults, and some of the most dangerous transmission settings are long trips on public transportation. The study also found unexpectedly low mortality rates among people over 65 years old, which could be attributed to the fact that people who live to an advanced age in India tend to be wealthier with better access to health care.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.