Perhaps characteristically for the global media, as COVID-19 cases soar in the US and Europe, little attention is being paid to Africa, South East Asia, Central America and other disadvantaged parts of the world. However, the grim reality is that this disease, carried by the wealthiest as they jetted across the globe, will undoubtedly be felt most strongly by the world’s poorest: those who have never seen the inside of an aeroplane.
As we turn our attention to our closest neighbours and seek to support those within our own communities, let us not forget our responsibility to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the human race. Even as we are forced to live locally, it is critical that we think globally.
A Looming Crisis
COVID-19 has been labelled by some as a “great equalizer”, as a virus that affects people of all races, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth: we have already seen how the virus has hit poorer communities in the US harder than the wealthy ones, and this disparity will be even more acute on a global scale
So far, there are relatively few reported cases of COVID-19 in developing countries. The countries with the highest numbers reported cases are among the world’s richest: the USA tops the list, followed by Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, and France.
These figures are misleading, however, as the testing rates in many countries are a fraction of those in Europe and North America, and not all governments can be trusted to report accurate figures. Nevertheless, it seems that the pandemic hasn’t taken hold in many African, Latin American or South East Asian countries – yet.
The threat of COVID-19 looms large over Sub-Saharan Africa in particular. Experts are warning that it is only a matter of time before COVID-19 takes hold across the continent. News that Borno State in Nigeria went from reporting its first case to over 50 cases including three deaths in less than a week seems to be an ominous warning of things to come. When the pandemic does properly begin in Africa and other disadvantaged regions, it will be devastating.
The health systems in many developing countries are simply not prepared to deal with a pandemic that crippled Italy’s health system, reportedly the second-best in the world, and is severely straining those in the US, the UK, and other wealthy nations. To say they are ill-equipped is an understatement.
The Central African Republic has just three ventilators for a population of 4.6 million people, while Somalia has not a single working ventilator for their 15 million people. Uganda has only 55 intensive-care beds, less than one per one million people.
Social distancing is literally impossible in many places. For example, in the slums of Kibera on the outskirt of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, around 250,000 people live on 2.5 square kilometres of land, meaning no chance of keeping a six-foot distance from others. Additionally, many communities across the developing world lack running water, meaning that even if they receive soap through international aid, hand washing is virtually impossible.
We know that pre-existing health conditions and poor physical health make people more vulnerable to COVID-19. We have already seen that the virus is disproportionately killing black populations in the US, due to economic and health disparities. Less data is available for developing countries, as is often the case, but following the same logic we can assume that the populations in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, subject to even greater global economic and health disparities, will feel the worst impacts of COVID-19.
When vaccines and treatments emerge for COVID-19, there is no guarantee that they will be readily available in many countries. We may very well see a repeat of the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) epidemic, when manufacturing agreements, domestic export policies and a simple lack of funds meant that developing countries struggled to get hold of the vaccine, with far more devastating consequences.
Even when these treatments do reach the developing world, there is a very real risk that fake versions rapidly be circulated in places like Ghana, which has a large pre-existing problem with fake and sub-standard medication. Ghana is not alone: according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 10 medical products in low- and middle-income countries are “substandard or falsified”. This will likely have deadly results in the fight against COVID-19.
Additionally, as limited health resources are straining to address the looming COVID-19 crisis, there is very little space left to address other health needs. These gaps are being exacerbated by social distancing and strict lockdowns. Surgeries are already being cancelled and health problems are going untreated. Immunisation campaigns for measles, polio, cholera and other vaccine-preventable diseases have been postponed across the globe.
Resources are also being diverted from sexual and reproductive health. Additionally, authorities are less able to respond to gender-based violence, with the UNFPA warning that women and girls are now uniquely vulnerable with increased risks of maternal deaths, unsafe abortions, and spousal violence. Women’s organizations in West Africa, for example, fear that we will see an increase in teenage pregnancy, a pattern already seen during the Ebola epidemic. On an already-overpopulated planet, this is a huge concern for both the Earth and the people competing to use its limited resources.
The impact of COVID-19 on the world’s poorest countries is not limited to impact on individuals’ health or health systems in general. The pandemic is set to be accompanied by starvation and violence, among other devastating impacts.
Food security is becoming a major concern in many countries. The UN World Food Programme is warning that COVID-19 could cause the number of acutely hungry people to nearly double from 135 million to 265 million worldwide. Severe food crises were already present in places such as Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela, South Sudan, and Afghanistan before COVID-19 hit.
Now, with food production being limited, transportation hampered, and populations under lockdown and therefore unable to earn a living, this global crisis will worsen. The WFP notes that predicted food shortages will be felt not only in low-income but also middle-income countries.
Starvation will be an indirect impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of many. However, the novel coronavirus is far from the only reason behind this hunger: global food insecurity is part of a complex picture of natural disasters, conflict, population growth, and poverty. Many of these factors, in turn, are due to broken economies, dysfunctional governments, crippling debt and inequity on a global scale.
The reality of one part of the world struggling to feed themselves while the other struggles with too much food is far from new, and this is a product of a global system that has been built over centuries of exploitation. It reaches back to colonial powers pillaging the resources, lands and the people of other places, and continues today in many forms. For example, we have an international fashion industry that produces staggering cheap clothes for the West by exploiting the workers and natural environments of developing countries.
Consider how the US and European nations are now struggling with food surpluses because social distancing policies have led to a drop in food consumption. Large farms in the US are destroying eggs and vegetables and dumping milk, while Europeans are being urged to consume more steak, cheese, and fries to counteract falling demand and protect local farmers. The image of some countries destroying literal mountains of food even as others head toward starvation is a stark illustration of current levels of global inequality.
A brief review of the fallout as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe reveals how deep and wide-ranging the impacts of this virus are. It is also becoming startlingly obvious that the pain is being felt most sharply by the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged countries.
Even as El Salvador has been promoted as an example of the “positive” impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic with a reported dramatic drop in homicides, other forms of violence have emerged or intensified. Social distancing is being enforced with baseball bats and truncheons in the Central American country, as well as in India and parts of Africa. Brutal enforcement of lockdowns in Africa in particular has raised red flags for many, with fears this could be used to usher in new eras of political repression and further restrict human rights.
There has also been a spike in gender-based violence across the world during the pandemic. This type of violence, under-reported in every country in the world, is particularly difficult to track in developing countries. However, there is stark evidence that domestic violence and sexual abuse has increased as citizens are forced into lockdowns: figures in South Africa, Kenya, Russia, the UK, the US, and elsewhere have shown a rise in incidents or crisis calls since the implementation of restrictions. This amplification of an existing problem is an unsurprising effect of victims being locked in with their aggressors.
The natural environment is suffering too. In South Africa, a steep drop off in game tourism, including hunting and wildlife viewing, has left animal populations vulnerable to poaching. In East Africa, COVID-19 has hampered efforts to respond to the region’s worst desert locust outbreak in decades, which will also contribute to food insecurity.
The Greatest Threat
Even as the world’s most vulnerable communities need help more than ever, assistance is being scaled down or cut off completely. As the world hurtles toward global recession and even its biggest economies, from China to the US, teeter on the edge of recession or even collapse, this has devastating implications for the poorest and most disadvantaged people globally.
Developing countries and the non-government organisations that provide essential services to their populations are now facing more need than ever with shrinking resources. Many international foundations that fund the programs that provide healthcare, food, and other essential services in developing countries are turning their focus closer to home. A number of Western-based foundations have announced that they will only fund programs in their own countries, making funding opportunities for organizations working in developing countries scarcer than ever. Some of these organizations also rely on international volunteers to help to deliver their programs, and this help has disappeared as it becomes impossible for volunteers to travel.
There are also worrying signs for international aid issued by governments, another major source of funds needed to provide basic services in the developing world. Along with the Trump Administration’s plans to freeze funding to the World Health Organization, USAID, the US Government aid agency, has restricted the use of their international aid funding. USAID’s new guidelines require aid recipients to seek prior approval before buying personal protective equipment (PPE) or ventilators. It has been speculated that this move is in response to the current shortage US of these items and a desire by the Trump Administration to safeguard their own supply, literally putting their oxygen mask on first before helping others.
This policy from the largest international donor for health could seriously impede the global response to COVID-19. If this is indeed the motivation behind this move, it is another example of a rich country looking after their own interests before those of other countries. Some would argue that this is the role of any government, but does this work in a global pandemic where if one country is affected, we are all affected? More importantly, is this just?
This is, of course, understandable. With the situation is dire in so many places, it is natural that governments will turn their attention to dealing with the problems within their own borders. On an individual level, it is also understandable that many people are choosing to deal with the issues that are closest to home: helping the older people in their street, or donating to a local food bank.
The scale of the crisis is so large that we frankly can’t conceptualise or quantify it; therefore, we cut it down into bite-sized chunks and try to address those. That is, to the extent that people can deal with issues at all: psychologists are warning that the pandemic is triggering high levels of grief and anxiety for some people. Some, therefore, are necessarily turning their gaze even further inwards and focusing on self-care.
On a political level, Western leaders are concerned with how not only this crisis will impact their countries and their people, but also their own political standing. President Trump is the prime example of a leader positioning themselves during the pandemic to secure votes for the next election, but he is not alone. It is the nature of politics that politicians will leverage even devastating situations for political gain, and this will take precedence over moral imperatives.
All of these factors are coming together to create a perfect storm in which the privileged turn their focus inward to the needs of their own country, while the need and the crisis only continues to grow in developing countries.
However, there are two very compelling reasons why we cannot, either as individuals or as countries, turn our gaze exclusively inward at this time, and instead need to think globally:
1) COVID-19 is not a local or a national issue: it is a truly international one. If any country wants to protect their own citizens and their economy, they need take a global approach to controlling and eventually eliminating this virus.
2) Even though every country in the world will be economically and socially impacted by this crisis, the effects will be exponentially worse in countries that don’t have the resources to deal with the situation effectively. As members of the human race we cannot ignore those who are most vulnerable to, and will be worst effected by this global crisis.
The New Normal
Some commentators are calling for us to not return to normal, because normal was broken. This is undoubtedly true: the present system is one of deeply-entrenched inequality, where one portion of the world can exploit people and the environment for short-term profit, driven by greed and the myth of exponential grow from limited resources. The COVID-19 pandemic, as devastating as it will be, is indeed an opportunity to hit the reset button on the global system and design something that will serve all of us better.
However, let us not allow the new normal to be one where we focus only on our local communities. We need to think global. The reasons why our previous normal was so broken – stark inequality, ecological disaster, broken political systems – are the very reasons why the most vulnerable people in the world are going to be worst hit in the months and years to come, and the least equipped to deal with these problems.
In some ways, thinking local is absolutely what we should do: we should look to local food production, to limit international shipping as well as international travel. At this time of a crisis of unimaginable scale, it could be tempting to look local. It may seem easier build things from the ground up, looking to solve the problems closest to home, one by one.
However, we cannot pretend we live in a bubble. We cannot act as if the issues faced by the worlds’ poorest communities are nothing to do with us. The truth is they live on the flipside of the privilege we enjoy. Their disadvantage is born out of the colonialism, slavery and resource exploitation that allowed the West to become wealthy in the first place, compounded more recently by decades of debt, profit and neo-colonialism. The West, therefore, has a responsibility to solve the problems it created in many parts of the world. The crushing impacts of COVID-19 will be just one more consequence of that legacy.
If the moral argument is not compelling enough, perhaps self-interest will be. As the world seeks to eradicate COVID-19 and protect their populations, not to mention their economies, they should consider one thing: this truly global pandemic will not disappear until it is gone from every corner of the globe. If the US and Europe want to eliminate the novel coronavirus in their countries, they need to eliminate it everywhere.
As we seek to build a new normal, we must make sure to include the world’s most vulnerable communities in this picture. On an individual level, we can financially support organizations and programs not only in our local communities, but also further afield. Volunteers who can no longer fly across the world to contribute their skills can help by volunteering online. We can all hold our governments accountable, making sure they support developing nations through aid funding and more equitable and sustainable international policies.
On a political level and in the long term, we need strategies to build a more sustainable, equitable world as the world recovers from this unprecedented crisis. We need to shift the way we think about debt, about resources, and about people. We can no longer treat human and natural resources as infinite supplies ready to be converted into profit. We must protect everyone, but especially the world’s most vulnerable communities from disaster by taking action on climate change.
In the short term, however, as the poorest members of the human race face illness, starvation and death, the international community needs to take a coordinated approach to:
- Cancel debt repayments from low- and middle-income countries and have serious discussions about cancelling these debts altogether.
- Provide immediate health assistance to developing countries, including the provision of PPE.
- Take immediate action to protect food security in countries at risk or already in crisis.
- Support the provision of sexual and reproductive health services, as well as gender based violence prevention globally and particularly in developing countries.
- Make sure future COVID-19 vaccine and treatments, once approved, are equitably distributed across the world, not just to the countries that can pay. As with all medicines, there should be a global humanitarian approach that makes life-saving drugs available to those who need them, rather than hoarded for profit.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis and it requires a global response. The world’s wealthiest and most privileged, on both a political and individual level, have a responsibility to act to protect the most vulnerable members of a human race that is facing a common threat. This responsibility is borne out of moral decency, out of collective guilt for actions in the recent and distant past, and out of a shared interest that means that if one of us falls ill, we all fall.