OPINION: Here’s what will happen if the richest nations don’t protect the poorest from the pandemic

by Mark Lowcock and Masood Ahmed | United Nations
Tuesday, 14 July 2020 12:31 GMT

An internally displaced woman helps a girl put on a face mask at a makeshift camp amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Jalalabad, Afghanistan June 22, 2020. REUTERS/Parwiz

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Unless the international community acts to support poor countries now we should be prepared for human tragedies far more brutal than the direct health impacts of the coronavirus

Mark Lowcock is the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs; Masood Ahmed is the President of the Center for Global Development. 

It is now widely accepted that the international response to the pandemic in the developing world has been grossly inadequate.

G20 countries have agreed on a temporary debt standstill for some of the poorest countries, and international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF)  have provided some emergency funding. This funding is a fraction of what is needed to mitigate what will be the deepest economic recession in three generations and the risk of reversal of decades of development.

Why has it been so hard for the rich countries to generate the political consensus to go beyond business as usual and challenge the international institutions and themselves to rise to this unprecedented crisis?

It may be because the virus has  appeared to advance more slowly than expected in many developing countries; or because the threat of their economic collapse is not as easy to visualize as COVID-19 deaths; or because there is pressure to prioritize financial support for people at home also struggling and concerned about the uncertainty ahead.

And yet, it would be a mistake to ignore the problems brewing abroad, particularly in low income countries and fragile states, where the poorest, most vulnerable members of our global community are most likely to be found. Unless the international community acts to support them now we should be prepared for human tragedies far more brutal and destructive than the direct health impacts of the virus.

The unprecedented fiscal stimulus packages and social protection schemes that have been enacted in the OECD economies are not an option for most developing countries, especially not for the poorest. They just don’t have the resources and their institutions and societies have often been ravaged by conflict. So they need international support, through the G20 — at a fraction of the cost of what those countries have done at home — to keep their people alive and prevent their economies from collapsing.

If no action is taken, the diversion of health resources could mean the annual death toll from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria doubling.

School closures will have a long-term effect on productivity, reduce lifetime earnings and are likely to widen educational and broader inequalities. Girls who leave school are at risk of early marriage rather than a return to education. Children deprived of school meals means an increase in growth stunting and a lifelong loss of potential.

The first increase in global poverty since 1990 will affect the vulnerable and marginalized for much longer.

Economic downturn, rising unemployment and reduced school attendance one year significantly increases the likelihood of civil war the next. Violent conflict drives famine and mass displacement. Based on current forecasts for food insecurity, refugee outflows could increase significantly.

These problems might not be immediately apparent the way virus deaths are, but it is not hard to see that they are coming down the track. When they do materialize, it will be hard to explain why we did not act sooner. We can legitimately claim to have been surprised by COVID-19, but we won’t be able to say the same of the development and security crises it is set to trigger.

A call for money during this time can be a difficult ask. But spending a little money now is a wise investment. It will save lives, protect decades of investment in development and reduce the scale of the problems in the future.

For G20 countries it is also calculation of enlightened national self-interest. Recent history has taught us that what happens in the world’s most fragile places has knock-on effects in the most stable countries, whether through uncontrolled migration, terrorism or global instability. In 2015, one million refugees walked to Europe because they didn’t believe they would survive if they stayed where they were.

Nor would it involve spending that much. We estimate the humanitarian costs of protecting the poorest 10 percent of the global population from the pandemic and associated global recession are $90 billion — less than one percent of the stimulus package wealthy countries have put in place to save the global economy. This financing would be used to prioritize the containment of the health crisis and respond to its devastating economic consequences.

Two thirds of the $90 billion needed is for economic support and could be covered by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who will need to consider special terms for the most vulnerable. The remainder needs to be met through increased humanitarian aid for those who won’t survive without it.

Though we face a massive and unprecedented crisis, it can be addressed with relatively little money and a modicum of imagination. Donor countries shouldn’t be restricting their response to what they normally give. Just as international financial institutions shouldn’t be asking themselves what can be done within their existing rules. This is the time to make new rules.

This crisis — and the prospect of cascading crises down the road — must force us all to think outside our comfort zone. 

The G20 is a framework within which the major economies of the world can look beyond the immediate and the local. Let’s take that opportunity to foresee — and reshape — our shared global future a year from now.  

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