The pandemic leads to another summer of anger

A demonstrator raises an axe towards riot police during anti-government protests, as Colombia commemorates Independence Day, in Bogota July 20, 2021. REUTERS/Santiago Mesa TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Though quieter in the United States than a year ago, this month has seen a dramatic spasm of protest in other parts of the world.

To spotlight just a few: In Tunisia, anger on the streets over the government's handling of the pandemic played a role in the country's president intervening and suspending parliament earlier this week. In Iraq, a stifling heat wave triggered massive power cuts and led to demonstrators blocking roads in disgust over the failures of the state. In South Africa, political opportunists tapped into public desperation during lockdowns to provoke one of the bloodiest weeks in the history of the post-apartheid republic. In Thailand, security forces clashed with protesters clamoring for political reform and upset about delays in the rollout of coronavirus vaccines. In Colombia, anti-government demonstrations continued after they had first flared in April, with vast crowds demanding a revamping of the social contract amid a spiraling economic crisis.

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The toll of the coronavirus pandemic looms large in all these places, as surges in infections tanked economies and strained health systems. This past weekend in Brazil, protesters once more took to the streets, calling for the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro, who they accuse, among other things, of presiding over a shambolic response to the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than a half-million Brazilians so far. The political uncertainty in Haiti following the assassination of its president earlier this month has been compounded by a coronavirus outbreak that's running rampant in a nation that, until two weeks ago, had not administered a single vaccine dose.

In wealthier nations, there's a different sort of anger festering. From France to Australia, tens of thousands of demonstrators against vaccination rules and lockdowns protested perceived infringements on their civil liberties. In the United States, where state governments are sitting on millions of surplus doses that may soon expire, vaccination status is almost turning into a marker of tribal identity. Even as infections surge in communities where majorities remain unvaccinated, a growing debate over vaccine mandates is only stoking further polarization.

To humanitarian groups, the gap between the palpable hysteria over wearing masks or getting vaccinated in the West and the genuine social anguish of those in the developing world is an outrage. Close to 20 percent of the world's population lives in Africa, but less than 2 percent of the continent's population is fully vaccinated.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, decried the "shocking inequity" in vaccine access during a briefing earlier this month. "Vaccine nationalism, where a handful of nations have taken the lion's share, is morally indefensible," he said. "At this stage in the pandemic, the fact that millions of health and care workers [in the developing world] have still not been vaccinated is abhorrent."

The vaccine gap has sweeping downstream effects. In a report on the global economic outlook released this week, the International Monetary Fund upgraded its growth projections for advanced economies, including the United States, but downgraded those for developing countries such as India, which experienced a devastating second coronavirus wave from March to May. India is producing many of its own vaccines, but its rollout was hampered by delays in the global supply chain that were, in part, a consequence of U.S. measures to consolidate vaccine production and distribution at home. Hundreds of millions of doses are expected to reach other countries in the developing world by the end of the year or early next year, but the damage has already been done.

"Vaccine access has emerged as the principal faultline along which the global recovery splits into two blocs," the IMF said. Some countries "can look forward to further normalization of activity later this year," but many others "still face resurgent infections and rising Covid death tolls."

"We warned of a dangerous divergence, and we are seeing that getting worse," IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath told Bloomberg News. "We're not out of the woods with respect to the pandemic."

Many developing countries had neither the social safety nets nor the robust public and private health systems of advanced economies in the West. When the pandemic hit, hospitals were pushed to the breaking point and in some instances simply couldn't cope with the surge of infections. For that reason, international organizations have called on the IMF and wealthy governments to help support a significant increase in health spending in the developed world. "Well-funded and quality universal healthcare must be the legacy of the pandemic: to save lives and better tackle future pandemics," said Oxfam International's Deepak Xavier in conversation with the World Economic Forum.

For now, though, the concerns are much more immediate - and are often finding visceral expression. A team of researchers at the Institute for Economics and Peace, a global think tank, tracked more than 5,000 pandemic-related violent events between January 2020 and April 2021. The protests on view from Latin America to the Middle East reflect mounting unemployment, as jobs in the informal economy vanished with no recompense, and hunger as food prices spiked, as well as the backsliding of millions of people around the world into poverty.

"Global hunger shot up by an estimated 118 million people worldwide in 2020, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, jumping to 768 million people - the most going at least as far back as 2006," wrote Washington Post correspondent Anthony Faiola. "The number of people living with food insecurity - or those forced to compromise on food quantity or quality - surged by 318 million, to 2.38 billion."

Faiola reported his story from Peru, home to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Latin America and a parallel economic crisis that saw the country's poverty rate balloon from 20 percent to 30 percent in just a year. The misery experienced by many Peruvians probably fueled the rise of left-wing populist Pedro Castillo, who was inaugurated president this week.

"The pandemic has exposed and accentuated [Latin America's] Achilles' heel - extremely high levels of income equality," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based group, told the Los Angeles Times. "Latin America's youth crisis - it is not hyperbolic to refer to a possibly 'lost generation' - is a powder keg for the region."

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