(CN) — The coronavirus pandemic is spreading to the developing world where its toll threatens to far exceed what it has already wrought in Europe and the United States, where the world’s most advanced health care systems are found.
To ameliorate this pending catastrophe, richer countries, global agencies, nongovernmental groups and individuals around the world are being called upon to provide trillions of dollars to prop up the world’s poorest and least-prepared countries.
The United Nations has called for $2.5 trillion to help the developing world, a sum similar to what the United States is setting aside to overcome the crisis.
Already, the pandemic’s arrival in poor parts of the world is bringing forth horror stories. In El Salvador, curfews are being enforced by gangs carrying baseball bats. In Ecuador, the bodies of people killed in an outbreak were left on streets in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city. Ecuador has reported a mere 242 fatalities and already the pandemic has overwhelmed its medical system.
In India, images emerged in which groups of migrant workers were sprayed with disinfectants by government authorities. In the Philippines, where 182 deaths have been reported, media outlets this week said 21 poorly protected doctors have died from the virus.
On Tuesday, the European Union said it was putting up $16.4 billion to help poor countries handle the health and economic damage caused by Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“We will only win this battle with a coordinated global response,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
As the virus spreads rapidly around the world, it is becoming increasingly clear this lethal coronavirus has the potential to become endemic and threaten to appear and reappear around the world for years to come. In particularly troubling news, South Korea this week said at least 74 people who had been diagnosed as recovered from Covid-19 tested positive for a second time after they were released from hospitals. That raised the alarming prospect that people who have recovered from the disease and are asymptomatic may still be carriers.
Under this scenario, experts say only a worldwide effort to suppress the virus can ensure it does not continue to endanger people everywhere.
“Coronavirus anywhere is a threat to people everywhere,” said, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former president of Liberia and Africa’s first elected female president who helped lead efforts to fight the Ebola epidemic. Her quote was cited in a recent report by Oxfam International about the dangers the virus poses.
Oxfam warns that as many as 500 million people could be driven into poverty by the pandemic. Before the pandemic, about 656 million people were living in poverty, according to the World Bank.
The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development has called for $1 trillion in funds, a $1 trillion debt relief package and $500 million to bolster emergency health services and related programs in the world’s 170 developing countries.
Experts say the aid is needed to beef up health systems, ensure health workers are protected and allow people to be tested and treated for free. Aid is also needed to prevent the collapse of economies dependent on exporting commodities and where many people live from hand-to-mouth. Before the pandemic hit, half of the world’s 7.6 billion people did not have access to essential healthcare, according to the World Health Organization. WHO estimates poor countries spend on average about 70 times less on healthcare per person than rich countries.
European leaders are worried that Africa may see catastrophic outbreaks of the disease in coming weeks. If this happens, even after Europe contains the virus, it could be reintroduced via Africa, EU officials worry.
A growing number of developing nations in South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia are battling outbreaks of Covid-19.
In February, Iran was the first developing nation outside China to report an epidemic. So far, the disease has caused nearly 4,000 deaths in Iran, according to government figures. The outbreak has overwhelmed its hospitals and has been exacerbated by U.S.-imposed sanctions. The Trump administration has refused to lift sanctions on Iran despite heavy criticism, and this week threatened to veto Iran’s request for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to fight the pandemic.
In recent weeks, the deadly virus has spread to other countries. As of Thursday, Turkey and Brazil were the next worst-hit developing countries, with about 800 deaths each, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.
Several other countries have reported about 100 or more deaths each, including Indonesia, Ecuador, Algeria, the Philippines, India, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Egypt and Morocco.
This new disease has overwhelmed highly advanced healthcare systems in northern Italy, Madrid, New York City, France and London. Images of exhausted nurses and doctors, hospital corridors crammed with patients and lines of coffins have become familiar and illustrate how devastating this new virus is.
As horrific as the assault has been on Europe, China and the United States, experts warn the threat in poorer countries is far greater.
For example, in Spain there is a doctor for every 250 people but in Zambia there’s only one doctor for every 10,000 inhabitants. Or take Mali, one of Africa’s poorest countries: There are only three ventilators for every 1 million people, according to Oxfam.
On Tuesday, WHO called on the world to tackle a global shortage of 5.9 million nurses. The global health agency said the biggest shortfalls are found in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and parts of Latin America. Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, has reported 16,195 infections and 822 deaths, but its President Jair Bolsonaro continues to insist that Covid-19 is nothing but “a little flu.”
The World Health Organization disagrees. “Governments need to invest in a massive acceleration of nursing education, creation of nursing jobs, and leadership,” WHO said. “Without nurses, midwives, and other health workers, countries cannot win the battle against outbreaks, or achieve universal health coverage.”
The virus is already exposing inequalities. In the United States, blacks are disproportionately being infected and dying from the coronavirus, according to data released on victims. Blacks may be more at risk because a high proportion do not have the luxury to work at home, use public transportation and do not have easy access to health care. They also have higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure, and such underlying health problems can intensify the effects of the virus.
Such inequalities will be exacerbated even more as the virus hits poorer countries where hundreds of millions of people may face difficulties in getting access to medicine, disinfectants, medical masks, ventilators, doctors, tests and even water to wash their hands.
“While the richest in countries across the globe are getting tested and treated fast, with health care and cash to get by, most of humanity face this crisis with neither,” said Chema Vera, interim executive director of Oxfam International.
Of course, a massive response is under way both at national and international levels. Across the developing world, countries are enforcing lockdowns, closing borders, searching for people carrying the virus and promising to support their out-of-work populations. About half of the world’s population is under restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus and the economic toll of this shutdown is projected to be greater than the 2008 financial crisis.
The International Monetary Fund said it is working to distribute $100 billion in emergency funds to countries in need and that it has at its disposal $1 trillion. The World Bank has approved a $14 billion package to help companies and countries handle the pandemic.
In March, the Group of 20 major economies pledged to inject more than $5 trillion into the global economy to offset the effects of the pandemic.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.