Coronavirus has ravaged western countries. What happens when it hits poor ones?

Nesrine Malik

Most countries in Africa have very limited capacity to test for coronavirus.

Though Africa has fewer coronavirus cases and a slower rate of infection than the UK, many countries in the continent have passed dramatically more extreme measures to prevent its spread than Britain has. In my birth country of Sudan, after only one case and one death was registered, all schools and universities were shut down. Several other nations, such as Egypt, have taken the ultimate precaution and closed their airports.

There is no denial here, no mixed messaging, and no unfounded promise of how soon we will send the virus packing.

The tough and timely action is borne less out of political maturity than it is bitter experience, and an awareness that already overburdened public healthcare systems cannot sustain an onslaught. The ebola epidemic of 2014 is still fresh in the mind in sub-Saharan African countries; it was an experience that showed prevention and containment are the only hope of fending off thousands of deaths.

If we are concerned about the failure to contain the virus in western Europe and the US, multiples of that horror await in the developing world. With few means of medical intervention, and several other risk factors such as malnutrition, high population densities, communal living and lack of access to water and washing facilities, the rates of mortality could dwarf what has been seen so far in the west. And economically, the virus risks ushering in an ice age. There are no war chests, no stimulus packages, no insurance payouts.

There is little data about the impact in Africa of previous pandemics such as the 1918-19 Spanish flu (except from South Africa where, because of troop movements, 6 per cent of the population perished). But we do have the experience of economically similar south Asian countries to go by. It is estimated that up to 30 per cent of the entire fatal toll of the Spanish flu came from a single country, India. And in Africa it appears that the countries that suffered the highest casualties were those most exposed to global flows of people and capital – the ports or thoroughfares for troops on the move, and for sea and land labour.

There is something painfully predictable about how coronavirus was introduced to the continent. Well-off travellers to the rest of the world returned from holidays and business trips carrying the virus, as did infected tourists. In Egypt, the first cases of Covid-19 appear to be linked to one cruise ship, where locals who served the tourists contracted the disease.

The spread of the virus on the continent sits in the crosscurrents of travel and financial flows that expose African countries to the sharp end of globalisation – one where the flow of people is encouraged into the continent for business and tourism, and severely restricted out of the continent even for the wealthy and well connected.

It is the recurring theme of how the pandemic has played out so far. The poor, the uninsured, the disenfranchised, the information-poor and the less mobile are sitting ducks. Many western economies, including the US and the UK, have slowly pushed these people to the margins, while restricting employment benefits such as holiday pay, sick leave, and private insurance to an increasingly exclusive class. One of the reasons the British and US governments have been so slow to provide free testing, medical care and bailouts for those who’ve lost work is that these inequalities are now hardwired into the system. They cannot be undone overnight even when lives depend on it.

The global economy is set up in much the same way, with winners who hoard the spoils, and losers who scratch around for the leftovers. If wealthy single countries cannot scramble to save their own people, there is no hope for any effort to extend help to countries with a fraction of the resources.

But here is the tragic catch for those who think that this structural imbalance is not our problem. In this instance, national and international inequalities cannot persist without everyone losing. The realisation is just beginning to dawn upon lawmakers that the rich cannot be barricaded against the poor, no matter how high the barriers to the fortress are. Limiting the spread of the virus entails ensuring that everyone in the pool, be it local or global, is given the ability to test, self-isolate if need be, and receive treatment.

Yes, to some extent this is a utopian aspiration. But it is also essentially pragmatic. We cannot extol the virtues of small government and global societies without grasping that the risk to the majority cannot be halted from spreading: viruses do not distinguish between classes and nationalities.

Just as work and public life cannot be shuttered for ever, borders cannot be closed indefinitely. African countries are moving fast against coronavirus, well aware that they are on their own. But barring a miracle, or a pandemic Marshall plan by wealthier countries, if the virus explodes in poorer countries, the cataclysm will engulf everyone. –The Guardian.

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