First China, then Italy, France, the UK and now the USA, the coronavirus has quickly moved from nation to nation, devastating healthcare systems and leaving a trail of death in its wake. The developed world, even with its sophisticated healthcare systems, couldn’t act fast enough to contain the virus and is now facing severe economic challenges not seen since the Great Depression. The developing world is the next hotspot and it and the rest of the world are woefully under prepared for the terrible consequences.
Policy failures meant that the western world failed to test its population, but that’s a luxury the developing world cannot afford. The lack of resources, when added to their huge populations, is a recipe for disaster. Take for example Uganda, which has only 55 intensive care beds for a population of 43 million citizens. The situation is almost the same throughout the developing world.
To add fuel to the fire, developing nations also suffer from tightly packed slums, the absence of economic safety nets and poor food supply systems – making famine a real possibility. According to the World Bank, 734 million people lived in poverty (less than $1.90 a day). While that number has slowly been reducing, the organisation expects the trend to reverse due to the pandemic.
“Currently, rich countries are the epicentre of this deadly virus,” José María Vera, the Interim Executive Director of Oxfam International, wrote on March 30 in a call for a massive international aid program to break the virus’s impact in developing countries. “But we must talk of the world. We all need each other’s help right now. It is clearer than ever that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe.”
The Example of Myanmar
Myanmar is typical of the many nations across the developing world that are woefully unprepared for the pandemic. As of April 30, the nation has officially recorded 150 cases and six deaths. However, with a population of 54 million and a frail health system, that number is nowhere near the actual figure, experts warn.
The city of Mandalay, for example, has just six ventilators for a population of 1.2 million. A statistic that is familiar to most other cities in the developing world. The situation in the country is so desperate that one of their main containment efforts involved chemistry students at a local university in Mandalay being recruited to mix batches of the antiviral hand-wash in their labs.
Aung Ko Ko is one of the many people struggling to combat the fallout from the pandemic. In the absence of government help, the hotel manager in Mandalay has been scouring the internet for nutritional guidelines. He has been busy trying to get a headcount of all the vulnerable people in the city, to ensure they have food. “We don’t really know what we’re doing,” Ko Ko admitted, adding- “but we’re trying to help.”
While the Burmese government was initially slow to respond to the virus, it has since imposed a lockdown similar to that seen in India, Italy and the UK. However, in a nation where millions depend on working day-to-day to earn enough for a meal, such measures have severe consequences.
“My business is dead,” said Yin Yan Mar, whose noodle stall in Mandalay was shuttered by the quarantine. “For the time being, I’ve stored food for two weeks. After that, I have no plan B. Five people depend on me.” Sithu Naig is the sales manager at a gold-leaf manufacturer. He is sheltering 15 workers who are currently jobless, offering free food “for as long as we have money to buy it,” He doesn’t know how long he can afford to continue.
UN Emergency Fund
On March 25, the United Nations launched a £1.7 billion emergency fund to help developing nations combat the coronavirus. “Properly funded, it will save many lives and arm humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organizations with laboratory supplies for testing, and with medical equipment to treat the sick while protecting health care workers,” the UN website said.
To put this in perspective that £1.7 billion is just a fraction of the $2 trillion the US is spending on its relief measures and that sum is considered inadequate by many. If the eye-watering sums being spent by western nations aren’t enough, then for regions already suffering from poverty, war, famine and climate change, the1.7bn UN fund is just a drop in the bucket. With economic losses predicted to exceed £180 billion in developing nations, the organisation has called on other nations to chip in.
“On 26 March, the Secretary-General plans to attend a video conference of leaders from the Group of 20 major economies, in which he will ask them to adopt a “war-time” plan and step forward with strong response packages, which will address the outbreak domestically and help the poorer countries tackle the crisis,” the website added.
The UN has identified three key areas of action – coordination and cooperation, large-scale stimulus packages and a greater push for sustainable models of development. Secretary-General António Guterres said, “We must create the conditions and mobilize the resources necessary to ensure that developing countries have equal opportunities to respond to this crisis in their communities and economies.”
The UN has also called on the private sector and philanthropists to help contribute. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have also issued a statement asking all official bilateral creditors to suspend debt payments from borrowing countries that request forbearance (African nations are due to pay $44 billion in debt by the end of 2020). While the EU has said it would meet to discuss debt relief measures, no timeline has been given. China and the US have remained silent so far.
The IMF has also made $50 billion available through its rapid-disbursing emergency financing facilities for low income and emerging market countries. The organisation has also approved debt relief for 25 nations, mostly in Africa. With over 50 nations in desperate need of aid, even this amount seems insufficient.
Many regions in the developing world are already on the verge of collapse, and without sufficient aid, they will be set back decades. If the developed world doesn’t step up and provide the necessary help both in terms of capacity and funding, the consequences will be global and could affect us all. These countries will serve as the global reservoir for the virus and will ensure that the virus will continue to spread across the globe in waves, further hampering efforts to return to normal even in developed economies.
In the words of Mr Guterres – “The current crisis is a stark reminder of humanity’s common fate and of the need for upfront investments to reduce the catastrophic downstream risks of the pandemic.” We are only as strong as our weakest links, and right now, our weakest links are about to break.