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Prevent the Humanitarian Disaster Behind the Coronavirus Pandemic

Don’t let the Covid-19 crisis end in an international humanitarian disaster, Lindy van Vliet and Peter Gildemacher from KIT Royal Tropical Institute warn.

The coronavirus crisis has made us acutely aware that we are all connected. Within three months of the first report of Covid-19, the disease has become a pandemic. Due in part to shortages in diagnostic capacity and the time required to collect and report data, corona cases have been relatively few in the poorest and most populous countries in the world. But for how long?

Ultimately, the impact of the virus on these countries – on their health systems, food systems and economies – may be disastrous. Both national and international policymakers should take this into account in the fight against Covid-19. Otherwise, they run the risk of pursuing measures that appear to work in the short term, but which could turn this global health crisis into a humanitarian one in the long term.

Social Distancing is a Privilege

“Social distancing” is a good example of such a measure. It is estimated that 1.7 billion people, about 20% of the world’s population, are now engaged in some form of social distancing – a practice we didn’t even know existed a month ago. However, this presents major dilemmas in low- and middle-income countries. How do you keep “social distance” in informal economies, where millions of families depend on the daily income earned at the market, on the street, in the factory or from the land? Staying at home, forced or otherwise, means no income, no food, and no access to health care. Social distancing is a privilege that few can afford.

Health systems in the global south face unique challenges in Covid-19 response

As we wait to see how Covid-19 will evolve in low- and middle-income countries, we already know that their health systems will struggle to fight the virus. Overcrowding in big cities and problems with access to clean water and soap make it difficult for people to exercise the most basic coronavirus prevention methods. This is the daily reality for more than 1 billion people worldwide.

Moreover, if test kits, vital respirators and personal protective equipment are already in short supply worldwide, how are health workers in poorer countries going to get the protection they need? Under such circumstances, health professionals are at an even higher risk of infection and falling ill. Because of this, much-needed health care may come to a halt, not only for Covid-19, but also for other deadly diseases – such as malaria or tuberculosis. This happened, for example, in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic, where the loss of childbirth care, including pre- and postnatal care, led to an increase in stillbirths and deaths among women and newborns.

The global food system is not immune

The Covid-19 crisis will also affect the global supply of food if coordinated international action is not taken. Food production itself will not immediately come to a complete standstill. But if logistics in local and international chains are disrupted, trade barriers reappear and processing capacity decreases due to Covid-19 measures, this has consequences for the global food supply. When this food supply chain begins to falter, it will lead to fluctuating food availability and price increases that will most affect the urban poor and displaced people (such as the 71 million refugees worldwide).

The sudden increase in global rice demand has already led to price increases of 10-15% in the last month. In this situation, those (individuals or countries) who can pay the least and have the least say will be most affected. Scientists in Nigeria (home to the largest population and economy in Africa) warned last week that the country cannot ‘lock down’ because it would directly threaten food security due to a lack of infrastructure and shortages of food reserves, both at the national and individual level.

Crises can worsen gender inequality

The most vulnerable groups are hit hardest, which will increase inequality. This also applies to inequality between women and men. Restrictions on freedom of movement are already leading to an increase in domestic violence in many countries, the victims of which are more often women and children. Women’s care duties are increasing as schools are closing everywhere, and more sick people need to be cared for, making it more difficult to earn an income.

This is a fundamental challenge to humankind

It is not all doom and gloom. The G20 countries have pledged to free up $5 trillion to support the global economy. Experiences with other crises contributed to increased alertness, and as a consequence, many low- and middle-income countries reacted quickly to the first signs of the Covid-19 outbreak. And there is a wealth of expertise from many organisations and local communities on how to deal with major crises. New technological solutions are available to quickly disseminate the right information to population groups. People are resilient and creative in dealing with adversity.

However, intensive cooperation at the international level – including financial support – is required not only to fight the virus, but also to prevent the current crisis from leading to increasing social inequality and poverty, and at worst a global humanitarian disaster. Last week, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, warned that global catastrophe is looming if global cooperation fails to help African countries fight Covid-19.

Covid-19 poses a fundamental question to humankind: who do we want to be and how do we want to live together on our planet? Governments, scientists, the business community, and civil society organisations must quickly look for solutions at the international and local level which exclude no one.

This opinion piece was first published in the Dutch newspaper Trouw on the 31st of March 2020: Internationale samenwerking hard nodig om humanitaire ramp te voorkomen