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The suffering of poorer nations will be felt by us all

Children playfully run away from a fumigation machine mounted on the back of a pick up used in a displaced camp in Maiduguri. Picture: AUDU MARTE/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Whether through self-interest or altruism, we have to help the global south through this crisis, says JOHN KAMPFNER.

If you are optimistic about human nature, you might base the following argument on ethics, decency and compassion. If you are pessimistic, you would fall back on self-interest. Whatever the motivation, the problem is the same: how to help prevent the global south from collapsing under the weight of Covid-19?

The word ‘problem’ is a misnomer. As the head of the World Food Programme put it: the world is facing a famine of ‘biblical proportions’. There is, David Beasley told the United Nations Security Council, only a short time to act. Hundreds of millions of people are being pushed to the brink.

We are all grimly familiar with the situation in Europe, the United States, East Asia and other areas where countries are wealthy or comfortable by comparison. Although performance has varied, all such states initially struggled to cope with the crisis, to find protective equipment for health workers, intensive care provision and testing.

Now, as the death toll is either beyond its peak or is entering it, thoughts turn to the best way of easing the lockdown, of rebooting economies that have gone into freefall. The cycle in developing nations is generally a few weeks behind. They have seen what has happened elsewhere. They are desperate for assistance as they have nothing resembling the infrastructure of elsewhere.

Some basic statistics: most countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend $200 or less per head per year on healthcare annually, some much less than that. In the UK (by no means the biggest spender) that figure is $4,000. Across Africa on average there are just over two health workers per 1,000 members of the population. In Europe it is seven times higher than that. Uganda has 55 ICU beds for 42 million people. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country with more than 200 million people, has fewer than 500 ventilators to go around. And these larger states are comparatively better off and have more sophisticated infrastructure than smaller ones.

The situation in unstable or failed states, from Libya to South Sudan to Somalia, in densely-packed refugee camps or in other places where sanitation is non-existent, is unimaginably awful.

They are confronted by threats on every front. Many countries were already reeling from a series of droughts, other extreme weather and one of the worst locust swarms for decades. As already fragile health systems reprioritise to cope with coronavirus, other diseases from HIV to malaria and cholera, which pose huge risks already, are likely to spread further and to go undetected and untreated for longer.

If these governments had surplus cash, they would be desperate to get hold of and start using equipment. Unlike the richer states, they have not succumbed to complacency towards pandemics. In Africa they learnt from Ebola; in East Asia it was SARS. Ultimately, though, it is a question of money.

As they scrambled to respond, wealthier states busily grabbed their hands on everything they could find, slapping export bans on vital goods. According to the Centre for Economic Policy Research, these controls have increased the prices of PPE equipment such as aprons by more than 50% and masks by 40%. Even if they do manage to be procured, transport and other infrastructure has been severely disrupted. Supplies of basic foods are imperilled.

Meanwhile, budget forecasts of poorer countries – and their credit ratings – have been slashed, while bond yields (the amount it costs to borrow) have soared. Revenues have plummeted due to falling commodity prices – the oil plunge has been much discussed, but metals such as copper and tin have fallen due to declining demand.

Investors have done what they always do in difficult times and retreated to safe havens. Stocks and bonds in emerging markets have been unceremoniously dumped, as have their currencies, making imports even more expensive.

To add to it all, migrant remittances are considerably below normal and tourism, the lifeblood of many states from Kenya to Cambodia, from Namibia to Nepal, has disappeared. Even when the situation eventually returns to normal, tourism is likely to be one of the latest to recover, particularly long-haul travel.

Those governments that imposed earlier and more stringent lockdowns, such as South Africa, Nigeria and India, are under pressure to loosen them. They face exactly the same dilemmas as those in richer states – the trade-off between further economic damage and the risk of a resurgence of the virus, as has been seen in Japan and Singapore.

Yet such is the difficulty in acquiring testing kits in poorer countries, the proportion of reported cases as distinct from actual ones is likely to be tiny. This means infection rates are already likely to be far higher than shown in the data.

When states of emergency are lifted, the damage will undoubtedly be even greater. Across Africa and elsewhere there has been no safety net for businesses and individuals.

There is nothing in the budgetary tank. There is no concept of ‘furloughing’ staff. There is precious little state compensation in terms of grants, loans of deferred tax or other payments. People have had to get by as best they can.

International institutions have been trying to galvanise member states to act. The IMF has pledged immediate debt relief for a number of low-income countries. That is a start. The World Bank has been trying to fast-track specific responses, from treatment centres, laboratories, training for medical staff and contact tracing.

China is also promising to assist, making sure that it receives political and strategic advantage with each donation, as it has been doing around the world for several years already. The amounts involved from all the various sources are still small, denominated in single or tens of millions of dollars, and the areas that are covered are insignificant.

Compare all of that to the hundreds of billions, even trillions, of dollars being thrown at the coronvavirus response in the global north.

Much more is needed to help the
global south. International organisations and charities are calling for a Marshall-style plan that would both write off existing debt and provide huge amounts of new aid specifically to combat the pandemic.

Famine fatigue was already deeply entrenched among donor countries long before this unprecedented crisis emerged. The fact that richer states understand what this one entails, unlike Ebola for example, and of course unlike famines, is unlikely to have much of a bearing. They are too busy trying to cope themselves with the health and economic consequences of Covid-19.

So much for compassion, so much for egalitarianism or decency. Self-interest is almost certain to be the more persuasive trigger. Europe saw the consequences of mass migration in the mid-2010s – the horrific pictures of the baby boy washed up dead on the beach in Turkey, or the long lines of bedraggled folk being hauled off boats in Lampedusa or trudging their way to Hungary, only to be violently beaten back.

Germany remarkably, heroically, let in one million people. Such was the political backlash, it won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

Nevertheless, the cycle of deprivation, instability and violence leading to migration at any cost is set to increase. That will make 2015 seem small.

The best way, indeed the only way to alleviate the consequences of the pandemic on the global poor is to
rethink the way we assist their economies. More immediately we need to dig deep to help, precisely at a time when we are at our most stretched and most focused on our own. But if we don’t act fast, we will reap the whirlwind – not to mention the extraordinary individual and societal suffering that will make what we have experienced seem small by comparison.

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