Reflections on the global response to COVID-19
David Marshall, CEO of International Needs Canada
People often say to me: “There are so many challenges here in Canada, why should we worry about what’s happening in other countries?” My response: “It’s not either / or, but both. As global citizens, we should be concerned about the plight of others, regardless of where they reside.” But when it comes to the impact of COVID-19, we may all be in the same storm, but we’re not even close to being in the same boat. The impact of this pandemic is exponentially more severe in countries where social and economic support are non-existent.
Since the outbreak at the start of 2020, the official death toll has passed 1.2 million around the world and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. While lockdown measures have saved lives in developed countries, the cons of lockdown strongly outweigh the benefits in developing countries. Disease, poverty, hunger, and violence are all aftershocks of the pandemic that are on track to cause more deaths than the virus itself.
A break from reality
At present, low income countries account for a relatively small but rising percentage of global coronavirus cases. These low rates, however, do not accurately reflect reality. While there indeed may be fewer cases in these countries, these figures have more to do with limited testing capacity, and because testing for COVID-19 has taken precedence in recent months, already weak healthcare systems are incapable of handling the influx in cases.
Unequal health spending per capita
In low- and middle-income countries, the World Bank estimates that health spending per capita averaged around USD$249.51 per capita (pre-COVID), whereas high income countries averaged USD$5,284.12 per capita. This meagre spending makes it impossible to pay for medical supplies, physicians, hospital beds, and medications, and has proved catastrophic as COVID-19 continues to spread through heavily populated areas.
Other diseases expected to rise
On top of the strain COVID-19 testing has placed on low and middle income countries, limited funding and restrictions on imports have disrupted the supply of medicines and vaccines to treat other prevalent and far more deadly diseases such as malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis, all of which are predicted to rise over the next few years as a result of the pandemic.
Maternal and child mortality expected to rise
Where COVID-19 predominantly affects the elderly and immunocompromised, a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that a reduced coverage of medications for pneumonia, sepsis, and diarrhea due to the pandemic’s strain on health care systems will lead to a sharp rise in child mortality. They also found that reduced access to hospital beds and antibiotics will lead to an increase in maternal and infant mortality.
Loss of income – Canada
The economic impact has been severe, with many studies predicting the worst crash in the global economy since World War II. Lockdown measures have been felt around the world, though while we may be having a difficult time coping with the new norm, few Canadians will plummet into severe poverty as a result of these new rules and restrictions. Many of us are able to work remotely using technology, and for those who cannot, the Canadian government has provided a number of emergency benefit programs. With so much security behind us, it feels petty to complain about lining up and waiting at the grocery store, having to wear masks, and being asked to sanitize our hands when we go to the mall to buy non-essentials. Our perspective is skewed by our wealth.
Loss of income – Developing countries
Let me emphasize again that we’re not all in the same boat. The World Institute for Development Economics Research warns that the economic downturn will force an additional 500 million people into poverty, reversing decades of economic progress. Most low-income countries rely heavily on external demand, whether through tourism, manufacturing, or commodities. The most vulnerable rely on street markets, contract work, or domestic work, and many of these sources of income have been cut off by COVID-19 restrictions, which means they have zero income. And without the social protection systems we enjoy here, these restrictions have made hunger an ever-present threat. In slums, refugee camps, and areas of civil unrest, the threat of famine is almost certain.
Rising violence and abuse
The lockdown measures have not only seen an increase in levels of poverty and hunger but violence as well. Confinement, isolation, and addictions, combined with a lack of social safety nets, have increased domestic abuse of women and girls. Gender inequalities will be exacerbated further by the disruptions in education, hindering social and economic empowerment for years to come.
High income countries have the capacity to help, but still remain focused on their own problems at home to pay much attention to the plight of others. In September, Trudeau pledged an additional $400 million in humanitarian aid spending in response to the pandemic; this, however, seems a small sum in comparison to the $152 billion committed by the Canadian government on emergency benefits to help Canadians cope with loss of income. And while the World Bank and the IMF have started providing debt relief to low income countries, these efforts will provide little relief in the face of extreme poverty.
Global problem = Global co-operation
Alleviating the suffering caused by the pandemic requires immediate action from the international community. We as Canadians have a critical role to play in helping not just ourselves, but the most vulnerable as well. We may be able to slowly pick ourselves back up in a post COVID-19 world, but those facing destitution as a result of the pandemic will need a helping hand to recover from the aftershock.