Never in living memory can we remember a crisis that has affected the whole world and where the health and economic consequences are so intimately linked. The economic damage is bad enough already but if we fail to solve the health crisis and conquer the virus the economic devastation is going to be catastrophic.
Tens of millions of people in poorer less developed economies are facing disaster. While the daily scorecard of cases and deaths is dominated by the USA and European powers like Italy, Spain and the UK, few people are noticing the impact the virus could wreak in Africa and parts of Asia where health systems are already under-resourced and social isolation isn’t a solution in overcrowded urban areas.
According to the World Health Organisation, at least half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to basic medical care. Combine that with the economic collapse of businesses and soaring unemployment and we’re likely to see people forced to break out of the lockdowns to find food and money and spread the virus still further.
The worry is how do African governments sustain mandatory isolation policy in their over-crowded townships and informal settlements, and how long can millions of Africans survive without a regular income or access to savings to buy food
For all that the response from many African governments to date has been more impressive than that of many developed world countries. Most notably in South Africa where President Ramaphosa won much praise for his prompt action of imposing a three-week lockdown before a single coronavirus death had been reported.
Equally impressive was his government’s forward-thinking to have more than fifty vehicles available, each ready to head out into the townships to test people for the virus.
Likewise Nigerian has been screening passengers at its airport for the last two months. The Nigerian government has also activated emergency spending and tax cuts to lessen the financial burdens on its people.
Contrast that with President Trump’s mercurial approach to this crisis which was slow to impose the measures required to halt the spread of the virus. Now the USA has the largest rate of infection in the entire world. And the UK government has faced criticism for sending its medical teams into virus-infected hospitals without sufficient protective equipment .and for having a shortage of ventilators.
In the USA President Trump seems distracted by his ongoing war of words with China and issuing threats to reduce US funding to the World Health Organisation because he thinks it has been too friendly to China.
In Europe, we’ve seen very little EU unity as country-after-country has closed its borders amid a climate of every man for himself. The world’s richest trading block has largely failed to come up with a coordinated plan for fighting the crisis.
Meanwhile in the UK Prime Minster Boris Johnson lies in an Intensive Care Unit having succumbed to the virus himself.
Small wonder then that western governments, obsessed with combating the virus in their own countries, have hardly noticed the looming crisis on their doorstep in the developing world – yet it is here in Africa and Asia where ultimately the battle against coronavirus will be won or lost.
The average expenditure on health systems in Africa is just $12per capita a year. By comparison, the UK spends $4,000 per capita. In terms of equipment, some African countries have few ventilators to deploy. The continent’s health systems are fragile in normal times and a pandemic could bring a collapse.
No one is listening to the wise words of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who says Africa is facing the abyss right now. He’s issued this warning to his counterparts in the developed world:
“There is a major flaw in the strategy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. If the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world. That’s why the current strategy of uncoordinated country-specific measures, while understandable, is myopic, unsustainable, and potentially counter-productive”.
Prime Minister Abiy concludes that only international cooperation can defeat a virus that ignores national borders and that the world is in desperate need of global leadership. He has called for a global fund to prevent the collapse of health systems in Africa along with financial support to bolster Africa’s business community.
In contrast to President Trump he sees the World Health Organisation as vital to fighting the pandemic in Africa and preventing coronavirus from bouncing back into the rest of the world, again and again, creating second and third pandemics:
“Covid-19 teaches us that we are all global citizens connected by a single virus that recognizes none of our natural or man-made diversity: not the color of our skins, nor our passports, nor the gods we worship. To fight the virus what matters is the fact of our common humanity”.
Is anyone listening to this son of Africa or are we only drowning in the latest thoughts of President Trump or whether Boris Johnson pulls through?
Who we listen to now will have massive implications for everyone in the world when this crisis is finally behind us.