UN Warns of Humanitarian Crises Caused by Pandemic

UN officials said the world’s richest countries need to prevent aggravating the pandemic and economic crisis by not ignoring poorer countries.

A boy wearing a face mask walks past an informational mural warning people about the risk of the new coronavirus in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

(CN) — With the number of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic nearing 600,000, the United Nations on Friday warned the health crisis and global economic downturn are driving millions of people into poverty and threaten to unleash a wave of famine, war and misery.

The UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock issued a plea to richer nations to spend $10.3 billion on humanitarian aid in 63 of the world’s poorest nations to prevent “multiple cascading crises.”

“Covid-19 and the associated global recession are about to wreak havoc in fragile low-income countries,” Lowcock said during a World Health Organization briefing. “Unless we act now, we should be prepared for a series of human tragedies more brutal and more destructive than any of the direct impacts of the virus itself.”

His call for aid comes after the WHO chief earlier in the week warned the pandemic will get “worse and worse” unless governments take more decisive action.

By Friday, the number of fatalities worldwide linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was nearing 600,000. More than 4,500 people on average are dying each day globally with the majority of those occurring in the Americas, the disease’s new epicenter.

Brazil is counting the highest daily death toll with more than 1,000 people dying from Covid-19 each day. The next highest death counts are in the United States and India. More than 900 people a day have died in recent days in the U.S., bringing its total to more than 141,500. India’s death toll has reached more than 26,280 with more than 600 fatalities a day.

A health worker checks the body temperature of a boy in Mumbai, India, on Friday. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s poor handling of the pandemic and his push to keep the economy open is blamed for allowing the virus to get out of control. Similar to U.S. President Donald Trump, at the outset of the pandemic Bolsonaro dismissed the new coronavirus as little more than the flu and subsequently took a combative approach toward medical and scientific experts.

Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s chief of emergencies, said Brazil is beginning to see its number of new infections stabilize between 40,000 and 50,000 a day and the rate of infections drop. About 11% of those infected in Brazil are health workers, he said.

“It has plateaued,” he said. “What’s not happening yet is that that disease has not turned, is not heading down the mountain; so from that perspective the numbers have stabilized but what they haven’t done is start to fall in a systematic, day-by-day way. So Brazil is still very much in the middle of this fight.”

He said Brazil needs to fight the virus now.

“There is no absolute guarantee that that will go down by itself,” he said. “We’ve seen this in other countries, there is a plateau. There’s an opportunity here now for Brazil to push the disease down, to suppress the transmission of the virus, to take control. Up to now, in many countries, including Brazil, the virus has been in charge, the virus sets the rules; we need to set the rules for the virus.”

Beyond the health tragedy taking place in countries like Brazil, the U.S. and India, UN officials said the world’s richest countries need to prevent aggravating the pandemic and economic crisis by not ignoring poorer countries.

“Inaction will leave the virus free to circle the globe,” Lowcock said. “It will undo decades of development and it will create a generation’s worth of tragic and exportable problems. But it doesn’t have to be like that. This can be fixed with money and leadership from the world’s wealthier nations and some fresh thinking.”

He said the call for $10.3 billion in humanitarian aid represents a fraction of what rich countries are spending on stimulus programs to keep their economies afloat. He said the UN has so far raised $1.7 billion for humanitarian efforts.

He said wealthy countries “have rightly thrown out the fiscal and monetary rule books” in helping their citizens and businesses manage the crisis. But he called the world’s efforts to help poorer countries “grossly inadequate” and “dangerously shortsighted.”

“That needs to change if the whole world doesn’t want to look back in two or three years’ time at multiple cascading crises and wonder why we didn’t address them better,” Lowcock said.

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic and measures to contain the virus, such as lockdowns, threaten to place 130 million more people at risk of starvation, nearly doubling the number of people at risk of starvation before the pandemic, he said. He said global poverty may increase for the first time since 1990 with up to 100 million people at risk of falling into extreme poverty.

In addition, 13 new countries are now seen to be in danger of seeing armed conflicts erupt inside their borders due to the crisis, he said. “If that materializes, global instability will reach a new 30-year peak,” he said.

Lowcock called on the finance ministers of G20 nations meeting this weekend to step up and commit to helping the most desperate nations.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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