While Western countries are about to come out of the woods, many poor countries are in the middle of the Corona crisis. Many of them have had to make an impossible choice: closing down their economy to prevent the spread of the disease or risk a health disaster, while lacking essential health services to handle it. Whether they choose one or the other the poorest will bear the brunt of the crisis. An Indian doctor has said something very wise about the virus that now affects a whole world:
Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough practice it. Hand washing is also a privilege. That means you have running water. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means that you have access to running water. Hand sanitizers are a privilege. It means you have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. Most of the ways we ward the Corona off, are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich, as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of poor. All of us who are now practicing social distancing and have imposed a lockdown on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are. Many Indians won’t be able to do any of this.
And I will add – neither will all the poor people of this world. For poor countries, the Coronavirus has come on top of other crises. Since they don't have a health service that can deal with such an epidemic, most countries have chosen to close their borders, halt flights, close schools and assembly houses and use curfews to isolate those infected so they can't infect others. As they have very limited testing equipment or protective personal equipment, face masks and the like, blanket measures affecting everyone has become the choice of many governments. But the poorest cannot afford to take the precautions that the more affluent can and remain exposed to become infected.
Closing entire societies is a high-risk strategy. The measures come at a huge cost. A standstill in the economy has a direct impact on the economy of the country and the lives and everyday lives of millions of people. The poor feel it the most. And particularly the millions surviving at random in the informal sector. Many of those lucky enough to have a job, have been let go ad interim and sent home or they have lost it altogether. There are of course no unemployment benefits in these countries. Or social safety nets. You are on your own.
When the economy grounds to a halt, there are no rescue packages for companies at risk of collapse. And at the same time, the scarcity of goods in many markets leads to inflation. When everything becoming more expensive the poor suffer even more. Indeed, in many countries there is more suffering as a consequence of the actions against the Corona than the pandemic itself.
In DR Congo, tough measures were taken initially. When the lock down of Kinshasa happened, food prices in the market skyrocketed. In the poor neighborhoods of the capital people said there was a greater risk of people dying of starvation than from the Coronavirus. And for the Congolese who have experienced Ebola and the constant threat of malaria, Corona was just another plague coming their way. They would rather have food on the table than protection from an unknown entity like this. The president, Felix Tshesekedi, had to ease some of the restrictions. But curfew and tough measures still apply.
Sudan is another example. The country is already in deep economic crisis. The reform government that came into place after the people's revolution 8 months ago is fighting with its back against the wall. Bashir's regime drove the economy down and there has not been much help from donors since. The reform government trying to clean up the mess are now in the middle of a perfect storm with a collapsing economy, a real spike in COVID-19-infections, and prices of bread and medicines running sky-high, affecting the population severely.
The country’s leaders, like others in the developing world, face an impossible choice. If they are to fight the plague, the population suffers from the measures. If they slacken off on the measures, they risk a health disaster. But right now, the government in Sudan has no other choice but to retain the lockdown to control the pandemic.
There are many other countries that are suffering serious blows from the economic fall-out of the Corona-crisis. And fragile and conflict-affected states are probably the ones that will be hardest hit, both by the pandemic and by the measures against it. They need to get help so that they can take action - without shooting themselves in the foot financially and experiencing a further escalation in poverty in the population.
When the economy grounds to a halt, the impact is immediate and dramatic. Already the loss of resources in developing countries is three times as high as it was in 2008 during the financial crisis. Private capital flows to developing countries will fall with 100 bn dollars this year. Both the UN and the International Financial Institutions have come up with rescue packages.
But if the poorest countries are not provided with more assistance, their leaders will be forced to put the economy first. Saving lives from starvation and poverty (and their own political survival) will have preference over health concerns. The risk is that the pandemic will spread the virus further afield. And the consequence? It will soon come back to us.