COVID 19 – A looming public health and humanitarian crisis in developing countries

Over the past few months, we have experienced the COVID 19 pandemic moving its epicenter from East Asia to Europe and then to the US. The impact is enormous regarding the loss of life, livelihoods, and grave impact on the global economy. 

While it is far from over in Europe, the US, and many East Asian countries, I think now is not too late for the global community to allocate part of the attention and effort to Africa, South Asia, Latin America, and other developing (poorer) countries. The reasons are not just about being humane (all lives are equal) but also being smart. 

Until there is a vaccine, we are all in this together globally

COVID 19 is a highly contagious, respiratory coronavirus. Over the past few weeks, there has been more research about the much higher percentage of asymptomatic patients and how they contribute to the spread of the virus in a material way. This simply means COVID 19 can easily spread between human to human and until we test every single person globally, it is hard to tell if someone is carrying, or spreading the virus unknowingly. 

This has prompted W.H.O and many governments started to recommend everyone to wear masks when they are outside. 

We are only safe when every one of us is vaccinated

Having a vaccine for COVID 19 is not enough, it is about scaling the production and making it affordable even in the poorest countries in the world, and infrastructure in place to vaccine more than 7 billion people on earth. Recently, there have been more than 100 reinfection cases in South Korea (people, who recovered from COVID 19, test positive with it again). 

Given this context, while no one can tell how long COVID 19 pandemic will last, we know for sure that globally it is a long, multi-year fight. 

We can close our borders, stop cross border movement to reduce case importation from overseas and try to be “self-sufficient” economically, can’t we?

First, regarding the idea of economic self-sufficiency within each country border, I think there is a valid case to be made about diversifying the supply chains for a few targeted industries like medical supplies, essential daily items. However, to the broader issue of economic self-sufficiency, self-isolation for each country, unwinding global trade, “decoupling” between major economies, many of the world thinkers like Kevin Rudd, Graham Allison, Ray Dalio have warned us about the resemblance of the presence and the period between the 1930s – 1945. The failure of the London Economic Conference in 1933 gave us a drawn-out worldwide depression, with severe political consequences and the last World war. 

Social distancing may not be practical in developing countries

In many developing countries, where people live in cramped places, where they need to go out every day to find food, to earn a living wage to feed their families, a lockdown or social distancing is not feasible over a long period of time. Economies will collapse, people will starve. Before we know it, we will have another humanitarian crisis on our hands. 

Singapore offers a grim example here. Since the beginning of the outbreak, Singapore has been praised by global communities for its approach to contain the outbreak. The number of new cases in Singapore became stable and did not grow exponentially like in other countries. 

However, one blind spot is the foreign worker dormitory in the country. Singapore has a few hundred thousand foreign workers, those who help to build HDB flats, roads, MRT stations and others. They often live in dormitories with 10 – 15 people per room. They live in dorms because that is the type of accommodation they can only afford it. They work hard and save money to send home to their loved ones. The workers cook and socialize together too.  

Up until the last week in Mar 2020, Singapore used to have between 40-50 new cases per day, with a very limited number of unlinked cases, many are imported cases. However, when the clusters start to form at the foreign worker dormitories, it quickly spread at an exponential rate Singapore started to record 1000+ new cases per day

It is clear that living in high density makes social distancing extremely difficult. New York City is another example of how COVID 19 can spread very quickly in a high-density population area. 

How can we help?

  • Make testing more affordable, scalable in developing countries. 
    • Bill Gates wrote an insightful post about this pandemic, including the following details about testing “All of the tests to date for the novel coronavirus involve taking a nasal swab and processing it in a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine. Our foundation invested in research showing that having patients do the swab themselves, at the tip of the nose, is as accurate as having a doctor push the swab further down to the back of your throat. Our grantees are also working to design swabs that are cheap and able to be manufactured at large scale but work as well as ones that are in short supply. This self-swab approach is faster, protects health care workers from the risk of exposure, and should let regulators approve swabbing in virtually any location instead of only at a medical center. The PCR test is quite sensitive—it will generally show whether you have the virus even before you have symptoms or are infecting other people.
  • Invest in persistent public education to increase awareness about COVID 19
    • Misinformation is everywhere during this pandemic so awareness about correct, scientific information is critically important. W.H.O published extensive information on its website here in multiple languages. 
    • Community unity / national unity is critically important (especially in developing countries). Most developing countries (or even developed countries) will not have adequate resources at the central government level from medical equipment, medical staff, hospital beds, ventilators, finance, etc. to tackle this pandemic so the whole country needs to be united and fight together. 
  • Religious leaders play important roles
    • In crisis time, many people will turn to religion to help them to pull through, give them peace and strength. We need religious leaders to advocate for public health policies like social distancing, wash your hands often etc. 
    • We still see instances of tens of thousands of people gathering together to mourn the loss of religious leaders, despite the social distancing guidelines in some countries.
  • W.H.O critical role
    • While people can debate and argue about whether W.H.O has done enough, (especially during the early days of the outbreak (Dec 2019, Jan 2020)) the fact is that W.H.O is the only global organization at the moment, equipped with the human resource and right infrastructure to work with multiple governments, to help to coordinate medical responses, spreading the latest scientific information. 
  • Share learnings between developing countries 

Last but not least, I personally support the direction that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is going regarding their COVID 19 effort. They have donated $250M to fight this pandemic and the money is being spent to accelerate both therapeutic measures, vaccine trials/production and helping developing countries. You can support their effort here.

World Food Programme (WFP) is another organization that I support. Normally, they help to address hunger and promote food security. Their work is becoming more important in this global pandemic. You can read more about their effort here “World leaders call on WFP to lead COVID-19 fight in Africa” and donate if you can.


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