Some rich nations are making progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19. But a lack of global cooperation threatens the developing world.
Homeless people wait in line for food during a COVID-19 lockdown in Johannesburg, South Africa, 13 April 2020. (EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK)
It took the new coronavirus 103 days to spread from China to 184 countries, infect 1.6 million and kill 100,000 people, a sad milestone recorded on April 10. Two days later, the toll stood at 1.7 million COVID-19 infections and 112,000 deaths.
These figures, compiled by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, highlight the frightening speed of the virus’s spread. But for parts of the world with relatively few cases so far, the worst is yet to come.
By early April, the United States became the country with the highest death toll and more confirmed COVID-19 infections than Italy, Spain and France combined. But public health experts say the disease is spreading more slowly in some countries because people are being forced to stay at home, to keep “social distance” when venturing out and to wash their hands frequently.
So much progress that Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Italy and Spain have announced plans to gradually relax lock-downs and reopen some businesses before the end of the month, although many restrictions will remain in force for longer.
The worst is yet to come for the developing world.
In the United States, government guidelines on social distancing and staying at home expire on April 30. Whether they will be renewed is subject to heated debate. President Donald Trump has made clear he is eager to open up the country soon and allow back to work some of the almost 17 million Americans who lost their jobs in the span of three weeks.
His public health advisers have warned that opening too early could trigger a devastating resurgence. But the phrases “glimmer of hope” and “light at the end of the tunnel” have lately cropped up in the briefings of the administration’s coronavirus task force.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, has floated the idea of a “rolling re-entry” to normal life – a gradual relaxation of stay-at-home orders – in parts of the country by next month.
However, to put cautious expressions of hope in America and parts of Europe into a global context, look at a map showing the density of infections. Many of the countries in Africa and Latin America that show relatively few are also home to the world’s estimated three billion people without reliable access to water.
Map of cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 14 April 2020 (Johns Hopkins University)
That means no frequent hand-washing, one of the sanitation protocols considered essential for preventing the spread of epidemics. And in the teeming slums on the edge of cities from Mumbai and Karachi to Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi, there can be no such thing as self-isolation and social distancing.
“COVID-19 is poised to tear through poor, displaced and conflict-affected communities around the world,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power wrote recently in an essay darkly entitled “This Won’t End for Anyone Until It Ends for Everyone.”
The world’s poorest and most vulnerable, she added, face a “catastrophic loss of life” because contagion among them will be exponentially more lethal than in developed countries.
A global effort is needed against COVID-19.
Africa, health officials there say, is at the dawn of the outbreak. While the number of cases is still relatively low — 6,000-plus in April — all but four of the continent’s 54 countries have reported COVID-19 cases. The head of the Johannesburg-based Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. John Nkengasong, described the virus as “an existential threat to our continent.”
What is needed to prevent COVID-19 from raging out of control in developing countries, according to Power, is a global effort on the pattern of the 50-nation coalition then U.S. President Barack Obama put together to fight West Africa’s Ebola epidemic from 2013 to 2016.
That is not likely to happen.
As former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted early in April: “This is the first great crisis of the post-American world. The UN Security Council is nowhere to be seen, G20 is in the hands of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the White House has trumpeted America First and Everyone Alone for years. Only the virus is globalized.”
This is the first great crisis of the post-American world. The UN Security Council is nowhere to be seen, G20 is in the hands of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the White House has trumpeted America First and Everyone Alone for years. Only the virus is globalized.
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) April 1, 2020
Bildt’s reference to “post-American” refers to the view among many of America’s allies that Trump has abandoned the global leadership role American presidents have assumed since the end of World War Two, when the United States was instrumental in building a sprawling network of international alliances and organizations, including the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
From the moment he took office in 2017, Trump made clear he was not interested in the kind of collaborative action that could solve global problems such as the present pandemic. “From this day forward, it’s only going to be America first,” he said in his inaugural speech.
If ever there was a global crisis that needed a respected statesman to forge solidarity and rally allies to fight a common enemy, the coronavirus pandemic is it. But the absence of such a leader has been painfully obvious.
Global coordination, not “my country first”
The virus caused shortages of medical supplies in much of the world, from face mask and surgical gowns to ventilators, the expensive machines that pump air into and out of lungs that have seized up because of the virus. There were ventilators in the U.S. national stockpiles but not enough of them.
A presidential suggestion that state governors get their own, along with other personal protection equipment for nurses, doctors and hospital workers, set off a cut-throat bidding contest between American states.
On an international level, several countries — including Britain, China, South Africa and Taiwan — followed Trump’s philosophy of “my country first” and blocked exports of domestically manufactured medical equipment to make sure they had enough to keep their own citizens from dying of the virus.
Such moves contrasted with decades of ever-deepening globalization and hindered efforts to coordinate a global response to the crisis. As the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, put it: “What we need is solidarity.”
Bernd Debusmann is a News-Decoder correspondent and former columnist for Reuters who worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries and lived in nine. He was shot twice in the course of his work – once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.