Guest commentary: Developing countries face enormous hurdles in battling COVID-19

As we have reached the tragic milestone of 100,000 deaths in the U.S., uncertainty is in the air. When, what, and how to reopen? How hard is the economy hit and when will it rebound? Will there be a pause in the summer? Another wave of the coronavirus and with what ferocity? When will we have a vaccine that is reliable and effective, and will it be affordable, accessible, and equitably distributed?

The preoccupation with these concerns is unavoidable. While many parts of the U.S. and most countries in Europe have reached peaks in new cases and the curve has gone flat and even bent, Brazil, Russia, and several developing countries worldwide are facing a surge. In Latin America, Brazil has taken over Russia with the second-highest count of infections worldwide, while Peru and Chile are among the hardest hit countries, with around 1 in 300 persons infected, and Ecuador is not far behind. The U.S. has imposed travel restrictions against all non-U.S. citizens traveling from Brazil.

When I wrote my Denver Post column on this deadly virus in February, I warned that the virus could spread like wildfire in Africa. Thankfully, it has spread slowly – people travel less and most countries swiftly introduced containment measures. Nevertheless, the continent’s cases as of last Tuesday were 116,000 and the death toll had crossed 3,500, including a former president of the Republic of the Congo and Somalia’s former prime minister.

In India, the world’s second most populous country, with 1.3 billion people, which has about 150,000 cases and 4,500 deaths, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a bold decision to lock down the entire country in March, accompanied by thermal screening at airports. He established a “cooperative federalism” relationship between the Central government and the 29 states. Although the country had healthcare infrastructure limitations and lacked adequate testing facilities, Modi decided to “remain ahead of the virus” and transformed the country’s response capacity.

India moved from 13 labs in the first week of February to 123 labs in March and currently it has more than 600 testing labs with capacity to conduct 150,000 tests every day. India’s lockdown bought the government time as it slowed down the spread of the virus so it could prepare the healthcare infrastructure to trace, track, test, and quarantine people. This assisted the government to have the testing facilities precede the 4.5 million migrants going back home from cities to villages. People have by and large trusted and respected these measures and even the opposition leaders and civil society have widely supported his actions.

On May 12, Modi announced an economic resource package of more than $260 billion as the virus has left the economy devastated. Now that the lockdown is easing, the federal health minister and newly elected chair of the World Health Organization’s executive board, Harsh Vardhan, whom I know well personally, says that India is prepared to meet new outbreaks.

Because of the low testing capacity, the real numbers in developing countries are likely much higher; and this is not the only challenge. In most places, health care facilities are inadequate to cope, there is a shortage of PPE, and a lack of ventilators and intensive care beds. The usual preventive measures – social distancing, frequent hand washing, and isolation – are hard to meet because of crowded households and lack of access to running water. Also, many of the needed medical supplies are not affordable or even accessible. Western donors are overwhelmed with their own national challenges and some suppliers have limited exports to wealthier buyers.

The coronavirus-19 demonstrates that developing countries must not be ignored – they need assistance to combat this crisis. WHO has provided support, but more international collaborative efforts are needed. A couple of examples are the COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition, bringing together scientists, funders, and policy makers to assist countries that lack resources; and Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing. We must never forget that all lives are equal.

Ved Nanda is Distinguished University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for
International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. His column appears the last
Sunday of each month and he welcomes comments at [email protected]

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