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OPINION: Coronavirus and the least developed countries

by Alpaslan Ozerdem | George Mason University
Monday, 23 March 2020 16:15 GMT

A member of local hygiene services wears a protective suit and a face mask as he disinfects the street and market to stop the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Dakar, Senegal March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We can't let coronavirus wreak further havoc in countries already suffering because of poverty and war

Alpaslan Ozerdem is the Dean of George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

As countries queue up their COVD-19 response mechanisms, an even bigger threat has largely been ignored by the international community: What will happen when the coronavirus spreads to the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) and war-torn environments, where healthcare systems are informal, insufficient or nonexistent.

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The United Nations, thankfully, is announcing a fund this week to help countries with underdeveloped health systems tackle the virus. The need here is great. If rich western countries are struggling with this pandemic, imagine how much damage the virus will do to vulnerable populations in the global south and war zones worldwide.

Consider Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where many LDCs are. While over 300 people have already tested positive for the coronavirus in 30 African countries, these numbers could easily be higher due to the lack of testing and reporting, which is why African governments are starting to close down schools and cultural and religious events.

Consider war torn countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Syria or Yemen where the existence and spread of this virus is anybody’s guess. Given these poor countries’ limited health services and overall security and governance challenges, they will have little chance to respond in a timely fashion or with significant resources, providing testing kits, much-needed medicine, hospital care or quarantine facilities.

Those living in the Syrian refugee camps of Jordan or Lebanon, or the displaced populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia or Yemen, need protection from this pandemic, too. Even if rich western nations manage to control it within our own borders in the short term, the coronavirus will continue to pose a threat to us if we fail to simultaneously help least developed countries fight the virus.

That’s why we need an economic stimulus plan for LDCs. Much like how the US government is considering cash payments to Americans in need, rich countries need to do the same for under-resourced nations around the world. Otherwise, we can and should expect the virus to hit these countries even harder than they’ve hit developed countries with more robust healthcare systems and infrastructure in place.

Such a stimulus plan would build on what the World Health Organization and the UN Foundation are doing. They’ve initiated a global humanitarian response plan for COVID-19 and recently launched a COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The World Bank has also announced a fast-track package of $12 billion to support the efforts of developing countries in their response to this pandemic.

This is good news, but the real needs will likely demand a lot more. The funding on its own won’t be enough, as an effective response to the pandemic will require much wider support to the health systems of least developed countries, or, in some cases, such as displaced populations, the ability to reach them at all.

Rich countries need to step up and start taking action outside their borders. Take, for example, China’s COVID-19 response assistance for countries like Italy, sending medical experts and supplies. Other wealthy nations with similar capacity need to step and follow suit. At minimum, all of the G20 countries should be doing this, sending medical support and supplies to countries that have little-to-no medical infrastructure.

Multinational companies and well-financed foundations have a role here, too. Monies and medical support moved now will save countless lives this year. That the Gates Foundation contributed $50 million and the MasterCard Impact Fund contributed $25 million to speed up coronavirus treatment is a start. But, again, much more is needed.

In sum, turning a blind eye to this emerging crisis in the least developed and war-torn countries will cost the lives of so many people. And it is essential that we now band together to help those without any meaningful resources fight this pandemic. Vulnerable countries have already lost so much because of poverty and war, we cannot let the virus wreak further havoc. Millions of lives are stake. By acting now, we might save some.