Trump pulls off his protective face mask after returning to the Oval Office after receiving treatment at the Walter Reed Medical Centre – Reuters
The world is experiencing the worst pandemic crisis in one hundred years. By June 2020, more than 80% of countries around the world had imposed strict containment and mitigation measures to control the spread of the disease. To add to the drama the US President Donald Trump joined the list of those VVIPs infected by the virus.
The economic fallout due to the pandemic has been huge, with huge consequences for poverty and welfare, particularly in developing countries. The pandemic crises will hurt low- and middle-income countries disproportionately because most of them lack the financial resources and human resources capacity to deal with a systemic economic shock of this nature. Their large informal sectors, limited fiscal space, and weak governance make developing countries particularly vulnerable to the pandemic and the measures to contain it.
Next, the evidence on the costs and benefits of different mitigation and suppression strategies vary across countries at different income levels. Also having limited resources and capabilities but also younger populations, developing countries face serious trade-offs in their fight against COVID-19 than developed countries.
Preserving lives and avoiding crushed livelihoods
For developing countries, the trade-off is not just between lives and the economy. The challenge for the developing world is preserving lives and avoiding crushed livelihoods. Different trade-offs call for specific economic and social strategies.
For countries with older populations and higher incomes, more radical suppression measures may be the best option; while for poorer, younger countries, more moderate measures may be best to ensure the economy does not go into a recession.
Having different trade-offs, however, provides no grounds for complacency for developing countries. The goal of saving lives and livelihoods is possible with economic and public health policies tailored to the reality of developing countries.
Since good mitigation strategies such as shielding the vulnerable and identifying and isolating the infected pose substantial challenges for implementation, a combination of inventiveness for adaptation with a determined effort by national authorities, and the support of the international community is needed. The lockdowns may be easing in most places, but the fight against the pandemic has not been won yet. People and economies will remain vulnerable until a vaccine or a treatment is developed and distributed globally.
The challenge for the developing countries in the next few months will be to revive the economy while mitigating new waves of infection. Therefore governments must identify the trade-offs that make most economic and social sense for their people.
For example, masks are cheap and there is clear evidence it works. For many countries opening schools is a top priority, but bars, football games and night clubs are not. Governments therefore need to set tough guidelines and allow institutions set their own guidelines for enforcing them.
One problem most governments are facing is the desire to escape a trade-off between shutting down to keep people alive and staying open to keep the economy alive. Therefore for the foreseeable future the main line of defence against COVID will be testing and tracing, social distancing and -related guidelines.
A blanket lockdown like in Israel is costly and unsustainable. Also countries like South Korea and Taiwan have used fine-grained testing and technology led tracing to spot individual super spreading venues.
Therefore, till a vaccine is out, the pandemic will remain a part of life well into 2021. Globally the fall of fatalities also shows the progress doctors have made. They now understand what organs are at risk and treat symptoms early.
Since most societies have the tools today to control the disease, public health authorities must ensure compliance with the basics of public health to prevent the community spread. The virus does not affect everyone equally. Governments therefore will have to continue to invest to protect the vulnerable.
Rich countries have so far spent 10% of their GDP to ease the economic burden. And the poorest less than 1%. Therefore the rich countries should help the poor countries to strengthen the safety nets that are cobweb thin at the moment. Their action must not add to the suffering of the less fortunate.
The pandemic is very likely to become less intense by the year end, therefore governments in the developing world, the most vulnerable, must get a grip of it and deal with it professionally to ensure they don’t fail their people.