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  • Blog
  • 27 April 2020

Why a lack of global action on coronavirus in Africa puts us all at risk

Libby Smith argues that we need to empower global institutions and make global investments to support developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, in order to respond to the global coronavirus crisis effectively

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Written by Libby Smith

Acting Chief Executive, Coalition for Global Prosperity

Coronavirus has caused a crisis unseen in modern times. Across the globe the virus is devastating, with overwhelming human and economic cost. Thankfully, signs of reprieve are emerging; in the West, active cases have started to fall and lockdown measures are being loosened. However, we must remember that these are momentary victories.

A global crisis

Coronavirus is a global crisis. It doesn’t respect borders or geography. The only way to beat it is through global, coordinated action. UN Secretary-General António Guterres gave his starkest warning yet, prophesying that, “in our interconnected world, we are only as strong as the weakest health systems”. Particular concern is growing for sub-Saharan Africa; whilst cases in the region currently make up a fraction of those in the USA and Europe, with the virus spreading at great speed this is soon set to change. And it doesn’t take much to think of the catastrophic consequences we will see in the coming weeks.

The situation in sub-Saharan Africa

Roughly one-third of patients who are hospitalised due to coronavirus require intensive care; in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa existing healthcare systems will find this impossible to respond to. For example, in South Sudan, a country with 11 million people, there are only 24 intensive care beds and 4 ventilators. Somalia, home to 15.8 million people, only has 15 intensive care beds. And Sierra Leone only has 13 intensive care beds for a population of 7.9 million.

What’s more, many of these countries care for the millions of refugees who have sought safety from conflict, famine and poverty. NGOs are already calling refugee camps “ticking time bombs” for coronavirus. When visiting the Bidi Bidi camp in Uganda in 2018, I was shocked by the dense population and scarcity of clean water, even then. With over 280,000 people packed into the refugee settlement, ensuring social distancing measures and the appropriate level of sanitation needed will be near impossible.

The current picture for sub-Saharan Africa is deeply troubling. Public health officials across the world have called on the West to assist developing countries – to not only save the lives of millions of people but also prevent a second wave reaching their own shores. As Guterres and the UN have voiced, great concern surrounds the potential consequences of the West ignoring the outbreak of coronavirus in the developing world. In doing so, we could leave the virus in the perfect place to mutate into a form that no vaccine could combat.

What the West must do

To avoid such a disaster, we must invest in global institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO). With governments’ primary duty being the protection of their own citizens, individual countries are rightly focusing on fighting the pandemic domestically. In this realpolitik, it is supranational institutions that are best placed to assist governments in developing countries. Furthermore, with world-renowned experts dedicated to preparing for such a global health crisis, the WHO is best placed to lead the global response. What the West must do is ensure global institutions are empowered and sufficiently resourced to be able to do this. Global-level investments such as Global Public Investment have the potential to support this, allowing international public finance to realise its true potential. (Read more about DI’s thoughts on Global Public Investment and the future of foreign aid.)

What the UK is doing

The UK is positioning itself at the forefront of global efforts to fight coronavirus. The UK is the leading contributor to the international coalition to develop a vaccine, and earlier this month announced that it will be investing an additional £200 million to the global effort “to prevent a second deadly wave reaching the UK”. However, this action alone is not enough. Other developed countries must follow suit. Now is not the time for working in isolation either, which is why it is so deeply unsettling to see President Trump’s recent announcement that he will be withdrawing US funding from the WHO.

Let’s not forget the positives

In the midst of these challenging and uncertain times, it can be easy to forget all the good we are seeing across the world. Modern technology means many of us are more connected than ever before, easing the societal pressures of lockdown measures seen across the world. The last few weeks have also borne witness to some of the best of humanity, with neighbours selflessly looking out for each other and scenes of communities coming together to applaud the heroism of our key workers. Now, more than ever, it is clear that we must act together to beat this virus.

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that we must not be complacent. To underestimate this virus would be disastrous. Instead we must remember that we are all in this together and join forces: only by working on a global scale will we bring an end to this pandemic.

This blog is the fourth in a series on Global Public Investment and the future of foreign aid that aims to stimulate and contribute to the debate on new approaches to international cooperation and financing of global public goods, as we look to the decade ahead. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us that international cooperation is absolutely vital. What lessons can be drawn from the response to major global challenges such as pandemics and the climate emergency? How can international cooperation systems and public funding evolve to support sustainable development and global public goods? What should the priority objectives of a renewed international cooperation effort be? Which actors should be involved? Featuring voices from a diverse range of actors, providing their personal insights from across the globe, this blog series, co-hosted by Development Initiatives, United Nations University International Institute for Global Health and OECD Development Centre complements discussions hosted by Wilton Park on its series about the Future of Aid, with partners Joep Lange Institute and Coalition for Global Prosperity.