Padmashree Gehl Sampath
Last week, Africa recorded over 225,000 COVID-19 infections. While this count seems low when compared to the total tally of COVID-19 infections in Western Europe or the United States, the pandemic places low-income countries worldwide in a particularly disadvantaged position. Their disadvantages – a joint outcome of long-term poverty and resource-constrained healthcare systems – are only worsened by the unforeseen socio-economic effects of lockdowns and infections. As the pandemic unfolds in low-income countries, its health impacts are often overshadowed by the existential threats it poses to the most impoverished and vulnerable groups of people. Not articulating a timely global response that factors in these fallouts will be a true failure for humanity.
Low income countries have an abundance of crowded, semi- or fully-unregulated urban spaces including slum dwellings that increase the risk of spread exponentially. This is particularly true in megacities like Mumbai, Dhaka, Lagos or Cairo, where a large share of people reside in slums, with low access to water and hygiene facilities and little possibility for social distancing. This poses a particular challenge for disease control. In the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, for example, the COVID-19 outbreak in April exposed 850,000 people living on a little over two square kilometres of land to the possibility of widespread contamination. Second, national health infrastructure, a critical asset in coping with the pandemic, is heavily under-funded and ill-equipped. In most low-income countries, public health systems run on shoestring budgets, often suffering from shortages of regular medical care and supply capacity even in the best of the circumstances, due to a chronic shortage of doctors, nurses, qualified healthcare personnel, and equipment. Third, institutional capacity of the kind needed to test, trace and control – the three pillars of pandemic control in the context of COVID 19 – is largely compromised due to weakened instiutional infrastructure.
Nowhere to go but here. Chittagong, Bangladesh. Photo by Mumtahina Rahman on Pexels.
Economic Upheavals and Longer-Term Consequences
On the economic front, the lockdowns and closure of businesses in Western Europe and the USA have led to the disruptions of supply chains in a number of sectors globally. The economic slowdown will have a large cascading effect on economies of the South, with grim prospects for workers in sectors ranging from coffee and floriculture to textiles and automobiles. In all these sectors, the poor, who work at the lowest rungs of the supply chain with little or no economic reserves, will be most affected.
Notably, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 lockdowns and infections affect the poorest groups in low-income countries: the informal labor sector, the homeless, child laborers, and refugees. In India, the lockdown left over 415 million informal migrant workers stranded without work and shelter for the past four weeks. In Kenya, the most tangible fear amongst the slum dwellers of Kibera is hunger and not disease. Already exposed to extreme risks and vulnerabilities, refugees in in Syria, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan face a similar struggle. For these groups of people, COVID-19 is not just a disease, it is an existential threat. Weighing these effects on employment and wellbeing, a recent study by the United Nations estimates that half a billion people could be pushed below the poverty line by the end of the year, setting back the global fight against poverty by thirty years. Relatedly, the International Labour Organisation has issued a warning that the pandemic will wipe out nearly seven percent of working hours worldwide in the second quarter of this year – the equivalent of 195 million full time workers.
Another generation lost to poverty. Mbale, Uganda. Photo by Dazzle Jam on Pexels.
Reiterating the Need for a New Global Compact
This crisis offers a unique opportunity to chart new territory. Its key lesson is that health and economic wellbeing are inter-connected on a global scale. Building on that, leaders, institutions, businesses, and governments need to envisage bold initiatives for international cooperation based on the principle of universality. “Business as usual” efforts, like the G20 initiative to suspend debt service payments for less-developed countries or the World Bank and IMF joint COVID-19 response strategy will only go so far. What is required is a new Global Compact that restructures trade and international relations in a more humane way with health, environment and wellbeing of all at its center. Only by purposefully including those who have been previously systematically excluded will we prevent the mistakes of unilateralism manifesting once again.
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