The Global Community Must Cooperate to Tackle Coronavirus

As the Coronavirus has spread from China and Asia, to Europe, to North America, it is now reaching the shores of the African continent. As of 30th March, Africa had reported 5,252 infections. The continent, home to over one billion people, is the world’s poorest. Increasingly, Coronavirus is becoming an issue for the entire global community. 

One in three deaths in Africa every year is from an infectious or parasitic disease (compared with one in 50 in Europe), so to some extent countries are equipped to deal with an outbreak. The recent Ebola outbreak is illustrative of that (insert some Ebola information)

The fact remains, however, that poorer countries in general are less equipped than many in the global community to deal with a large number of COVID-19 cases, first and foremost because they lack the medical equipment to do so.

The number of doctors, hospitals, and intensive care beds, is generally much lower in poorer countries than in rich ones. Sub-Saharan Africa has roughly one doctor for every 5000 people. In Europe, there is one for every 300 people.

Measures taken to prepare for outbreaks have been promising, with many countries introducing lockdown measures much before their numbers of infections reached European levels. South Africa, for example, introduced a lockdown before the UK, despite having a lower level of infections. Pakistan, which introduced a lockdown last week, spends one two-hundredth the amount on health of what the US does. 

The efficacy of these measures, however, is in doubt. In Europe, citizens – for the most part – have been induced to stay at home, isolated from others, safe in the knowledge that generous state safety nets will guarantee their basic needs. In many other countries, this is not the case. More than half of city dwellers in Africa live in crowded slums, making social distancing impossible. In India, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have returned to their home villages on foot as the state closed air, rail and bus services, risking their lives, as well as further spreading the virus.

Some countries have introduced measures to protect livelihoods, with South Africa announcing a tax holiday for businesses to encourage them to keep paying workers. Other countries do not have the funds. Since the start of the crisis, $83 billion has been withdrawn from emerging markets, meaning that public spending, consumption, and governments’ tax receipts will be lower.

As Western countries scale the peak of their own crises, poorer nations will need assistance. Ehtiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has already asked the G20 for an emergency package worth $150 billion to boost health spending and protect social safety nets.

Rich countries, especially in the West, appear more divided than ever. In Europe, leaders are squabbling over the economic response to the crisis. In the US, President Donald Trump is too focused on the domestic crisis and in scoring political points against China to orchestrate international action.

Other countries – and individuals – are stepping into this void left by the key institutions in the global community. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, and one of China’s richest people, has donated 20,000 tested kits,100,000 masks and 1,000 protective suits to each African country. State-led action from China is likely to follow. China has already shipped massive amounts of medical equipment to European nations like Italy and Hungary. Russia has made similar moves. Sophia Gaston, BFPG Director, argued for our blog last week how states’ actions in the coronavirus crisis will shape others’ perceptions of them. It is a challenge that China and Russia appear to be seizing, leaving the West trailing behind.

Levels of international cooperation in dealing with the pandemic thus far have been low. If the West wants to avoid a Chinese domination of the response to the coronavirus crisis, it should act to assist poor countries in navigating their own outbreaks.

Flora Holmes

Flora Holmes is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.