Jonathan Power

Polio Vaccination ProgramA great piece of news was announced last month by the World Health Organization that wild type polio has been wiped out in Africa, thanks to a vaccine. However, it still remains in some isolated parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan where public health officials fight the polio virus against inbred conservative peoples, some of whom  are prepared to kill the health workers on the mistaken belief that they are the ones spreading the disease.

The fight to eliminate polio has been going on since 1988, a warning that even when a vaccine for Coronavirus is developed, there will be many barriers to surmount before it will do its job.

 Thank heavens, the battle against polio was practically finished in Third World countries before the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Since then, the battles against tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS/HIV have been slowed down, partly because of travel restrictions and by peoples’ worries about visiting health for fear of contagion. It is estimated that about 80% of infectious diseases preventive programs have been disrupted. Every fourth person being treated for HIV has reported problems getting medications.

Coronavirus has caused sharp drops in TB diagnosis in many countries:  India (75%), Indonesia (70%), Mozambique (50%), South Africa and China (20%). Yet, at the beginning, if ranked by numbers and importance, TB eradication should be given priority over Coronavirus which has so far claimed around a million deaths this year, against 1.5 million TB annual deaths. However, current trends indicate that COVID-19 deaths might soon be equal to or surpass those of TB if a vaccine does not become available soon.

According to the New York Times, a 3-month lockdown across different parts of the world and a gradual return to normal over the next 10 months could result in an additional 6+ million cases of TB and 1.4 million deaths from it.

Measles, polio and other immunizations have been suspended in many countries. Western companies making test kits are diverting their resources to producing for Coronavirus test kits because they are more lucrative. Moreover, restrictions on air and sea travel have severely limited the delivery of medications to the hardest-hit regions. 

 It is quite amazing that Africa, despite the hurdles, has done better than any other continent in fighting Coronavirus. Is this because its population is relatively young? But India’s is also young and now has a million cases, a world record. One likely reason is that the virus was late in coming to it, giving time for preparation, and because there is less human traffic with the rich countries. Most importantly Africa has confronted several epidemics, and thus has experience in dealing with them. For example, from handling the deadly Ebola virus in East Africa in 2000 and West Africa in 2014, the medical staff already knew how to deal with new epidemic.

The African “good news” somewhat balances out the bad ones when it comes to epidemiology. But, looking at the economics of development, the story is largely but not entirely negative. The International Monetary Fund says that the continent, after 25 years of rapid growth, with some countries being the fastest growing economies in the world, will suffer its worst recession since the 1970s. The World Bank thinks it will be what the Latin Americans used to call “a lost decade”

In the fragile states- Somalia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and those of the Sahel region–hunger is steadily advancing. The UN’s World Food Program and NG0s are fully stretched already. A devastating attack of locusts in East Africa has added to the misery. There has also been a sharp loss of markets in the developed world. 

This is the price of the coronavirus which was incubated in China but was spread mainly by the highly developed countries in Europe, Japan, and North America. Have they shown any signs of compensating Africa, Latin America and India for the damage and destruction they have caused? Not one bit. 

We do not need to be told that if there is a vaccine, the developing countries will be last in the queue. President Donald Trump will insist on “America First”. Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia will quickly follow. 

The rich countries have helped their poorer people (although in the US that has now stopped) but they have done little to help the poorer Third World countries. Talk of debt moratoriums has brought warnings of rating downgrades. A proposal to increase the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights–a form of global money printing–to help poor countries has got nowhere, yet the rich countries have not hesitated in doing something similar for themselves. The Financial Times has written, “The idea of making cash available to some of the poorest people on earth, either through grants, concessional loans of debt write-offs, has elicited tuts of “moral hazard” (bankers’ terminology for making it too easy for the wrong-headed to make the same mistake again)”.

Mark Lowcock, the emergency relief coordinator of the UN, estimates it would cost €90 billion to protect the poorest 10% of the world’s people from the worst impacts of the virus. This includes many people in Africa as well as such countries as Afghanistan and Syria. A lot? No, it is only 1% of the stimulus rich countries have spent on themselves, even though they should know well enough that if things are left as they are, there will be hunger, violence, political instability, domestic violence, especially against women, and migration flooding Europe and America with boat people.

All is not lost. As a BBC program highlighted recently, it maybe that the extent of the damage to Africa is not as bad as the IMF says. A large part of their economies is in the informal sector–making and selling goods away from the eyes of tax officials and number counters. They have a flexibility and durability that big established companies do not have. Also, people can change their diets to equally nutritious foods–from imported rice to domestic cassava. This could mean that instead of the World Bank’s “lost decade” the setback may be as small as 3 years in the more successful African countries. During the fall out from the 2008 American-induced financial crash, Sierra Leone kept its poverty rate falling despite the added burden of Ebola. 

The spread of the internet in the Third World has had a dramatic effect on development. The United Nations Human Development Agency estimates that without access to the internet the decline in human development would be two and a half times worse. Even in these dark times the spread of the internet is growing. 

Nevertheless, although I have tried to underline the positive side, in sum the virus has been devastating. The rich countries have it within their resources to mitigate the worst of it. It is in their own interests to contain the effect of coronavirus in the Third World as well. Otherwise, the virus that may survive in developing countries will come back and bite the hand that doesn’t feed it.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.