The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently declared MPXV, or monkeypox, a global public health emergency. The 2022 outbreak marks the first time the virus has spread widely outside of regions where it is endemic. The monkeypox outbreak was first reported in May 2022, after a number of cases were discovered in the United Kingdom. Since then, the virus has continued to spread, and nearly 50,000 cases have been reported in 99 countries around the world.
Monkeypox is an infectious viral illness that can spread between animals and humans, which is known as a zoonotic disease. It is endemic in a number of countries in Central and West Africa, although occasionally cases are found in countries where the disease is not endemic. Monkeypox primarily spreads through close contact or particle transmissions from virus particles left on surfaces such as clothing or bedding.
IEP’s COVID-19 and Peace report, highlighted the substantial impact of the pandemic on our interconnected global socio-economic system. Trade and travel collapsed overnight and many social norms were reoriented to deal with the burgeoning crisis. The impacts on global peace were significant, with peace now at a lower level than it was in 2008 at the inception of the Global Peace Index.
COVID-19 exacerbated many of the economic and political issues that were present before 2020, triggering economic shocks and heightening anti-government sentiment. The economic impacts of the virus were substantial; with huge knock-on effects to global trade, access to goods and massive spikes to commodity prices. Read the full COVID-19 and Peace report here.
While this combination of outcomes was unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, it serves as a useful blueprint for how the world could be impacted in the future by viruses including monkeypox.
As well as potentially triggering economic and political instability, viruses have the capacity to exacerbate underlying social issues and undermine social cohesion. COVID-19 highlighted how these sorts of threats can act as a threat multiplier towards already marginalised groups.
The COVID-19 and Peace report highlighted how increased discrimination and stigma, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, was the catalyst for a sharp rise in violent crime targeting people of Asian descent globally. In Australia, over 85% of Asian-Australians reported at least one instance of discrimination, while online discrimination surged on social media. In India and Sri Lanka, Muslims experienced high levels of discrimination during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic; while in China, a significant number Africans were forcibly evicted or forced to self-isolate while individuals belonging to other ethnic groups were not.
There are fears that a worsening of the monkeypox outbreak could trigger a similar spike in discrimination. After declaring the virus an emergency, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus suggested that “stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus.”
As it stands, the majority of cases have been reported among gay and bisexual men. Combined with misinformation, this has led to a significant level of stigma surrounding the outbreak, creating further upset for a section of the community that often already faces stigma and marginalisation. There are concerns that this environment is leading to underreporting of cases, which could drastically worsen the health crisis.
The WHO has begun an open consultation to rename the virus, owing to its negative connotations, amid concerns that the name could act as a trigger for discrimination. They have already renamed two families of the virus, formally the Congo Basin clade and the West Africa clade, to Clade I and Clade II respectively in an effort to avoid stigma which could potentially impact trade, travel and tourism.
There have also been significant efforts by health authorities globally to educate people and frame communications about the virus in a way to help tackle it effectively.
Online misinformation regarding monkeypox is rampant, and there have been a number of extraordinary claims springing up online, such as those linking the virus to the COVID-19 vaccine.
#MonkeypoxIsAirborne has trended on Twitter despite this being demonstrably false and there have been a number of reports of primates being poisoned since the emergency was declared by WHO . Although the monkeypox virus is predominantly affecting men, nearly one in four women in America are worried about contracting the virus; which seems to be due to high levels of false information regarding the virus circulating online.
The increasing prevalence of misinformation has also presented a challenge to combatting the spread of monkeypox. Online misinformation is a major threat to the Positive Peace pillar, the free flow of information. Misinformation, particularly online disinformation, is an increasing challenge and has played key roles in electoral disputes in the United States and in the Russian invasion of Ukraine , to name but two recent examples.
Among the most significant threats facing the world is rising global inequality. This inequality extends beyond wealth alone, with the gap between most and least peaceful countries continuing to rise year on year. Since 2008, the world’s least peaceful countries have deteriorated on average by 16%, while the 25 most peaceful have improved by 5.1%.
This inequality is also borne out through differing capacities to respond to health threats like monkeypox. Although numbers remain low, epidemiologists have been quick to develop plans to combat the spread including rolling out vaccinations to those at risk.
The smallpox vaccine has shown considerable effectiveness against the disease, owing to the similarities between the two viruses. As with COVID-19, wealthier countries have been able to secure an enormous number of vaccines. However, many struggling countries in Africa, where monkeypox is most severe, have been unable to secure these protections. The situation in Africa is further compounded by the fact that the continent is dealing with a number of other devastating health issues.
Health officials all over the continent are struggling to manage their resources in order to cope with a number of significant disease outbreaks including cholera, polio, the Marburg virus, Lassa fever, measles and COVID-19.
The next few months will be critical in the fight against monkeypox. Epidemiologists and health officials are battling the virus and the myriad of problems that come with it, such as misinformation and stigma. Consistent and clear messaging from health authorities is critical to ensure that individuals and communities can navigate these challenges effectively.
Viruses like this risk undermining the pillars of Positive Peace and continue to pose a serious threat to global peace. Preventing the virus from gaining traction and becoming endemic in any more countries needs to be a priority going forwards. As vaccinations continue to be developed and sourced, ensuring that vulnerable countries including those in Africa are able to access these protections will be vital to ensure that the global effort against monkeypox remains cohesive and effective.