openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The British government has abandoned the Global South to coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic could be a ticking time bomb for the world’s most vulnerable people. Yet just when global humanitarian leadership is most needed, Britain has been uncharacteristically quiet.

Dan Carden
25 March 2020, 12.01pm
A British nurse in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh.

Syria, home to over six million displaced people, confirmed its first case on Monday. Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on Earth, now has two, while cases across sub-saharan Africa is nearing 3,000. 

Many of the world’s poorest nations, no doubt more familiar with the realities of national disasters and aware of the weakness of their healthcare systems, are acting quicker than wealthy Western countries. Gaza, with cases still in the single figures, has already shut down restaurants and cafés, as well as cancelling Friday prayers. 

Ghana, Burundi and Gabon were all quick to ban entry from affected countries and quarantine citizens arriving from hot spots. Senegal, Rwanda and Zambia closed schools after their first cases appeared, and resting facilities across Africa have been rapidly scaled up.

This quick action has no doubt helped slow rates of infection, but if what we are seeing across Europe today takes hold across the Global South, it could be only a matter of time before we witness a catastrophe.

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A long history of global inequality means that many countries in the Global South face entrenched poverty, growing debt burdens, weak health systems, shortages of healthcare workers, poor access to clean water and sanitation, overcrowded living conditions and populations with high health burdens. Save the Children has warned these are the “perfect storm conditions for a human crisis of unimaginable dimensions”.

Take Senegal, where there are 79 confirmed cases. The country has a meagre 0.07 doctors for every 1,000 people. Compare that with Italy’s four doctors per 1,000. If Italy’s health system is barely coping, what is going to happen in Senegal? 

And with the main World Health Organisation (WHO) advice being to wash your hands, what will happen in countries such as Sierra Leone where 79% people rely on water sources outside of their home?

Self-isolating at home is not an option for the 71 million people currently displaced from their homes worldwide. The Norwegian Refugee Council rang the alarm last week stating that there will be “carnage” once the virus takes hold in the world’s refugee camps. MSF has similarly warned that any outbreak in crowded camps would be “impossible to contain”.

One of the mercies of the pandemic thus far is that children have been largely spared, but will this hold in countries where childhood malnutrition is high and pneumonia is already the biggest childhood killer? 

The risks facing the world’s most vulnerable people are huge, yet the response from the world’s wealthiest countries has been to turn inwards and focus on national actions. Without a coordinated response, each country has responded differently on testing, school closures, social isolating and travel restrictions. 

In the country that now puts “America First”, President Trump attempted to buy out a German manufacturer in order to claim vaccines “only for the United States”. Thankfully, the offer was refused.

The G7 leaders convened their first teleconference on the virus last week, but their concluding statement didn’t offer any concrete action plan to support the world’s poorest nations. Despite their recognition of the WHO’s leadership of the crisis, at the time of writing the WHO’s emergency appeal remains underfunded. 

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has issued some welcome new funds to the WHO and IMF and investment into vaccine research, but beyond this there has been an uncharacteristic silence from the UK government department that should lead on the global response. 

DFID is usually considered something of a humanitarian superpower, acting quickly and generously in the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, DFID helped contain the outbreak in Sierra Leone and provided regular updates on its work to the House of Commons and the public. Yet, as of today, there hasn’t been a single ministerial statement from DFID to the House of Commons on coronavirus. Perhaps it’s little surprise given Boris Johnson’s recent undermining of the department by effectively putting it under the management of the Foreign Office.  

It is vital that the UK is ready to play its part in what could become a global humanitarian crisis. There is more that can be done now to support countries in the Global South. African finance ministers have called for a moratorium on debt payments. I have written to the Secretary of State to ask if she will answer these calls and ensure that IMF support is used to restructure existing debts and protect citizens from coronavirus, rather than simply bail out previous lenders. I have also called for conditions to be attached to UK public funding for vaccine research so that they are affordable and accessible to the poorest countries once ready for distribution. 

Of course parliament must prioritise our own national crisis, but that is not a reason to turn our backs on the world. If ever there was a time for international coordination, now is it. The virus does not respect national borders - and nor should our response. We need to be outward-looking, not only because we believe in practising solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people, but because this virus cannot and will not be beaten in one country alone.

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