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Let’s give the poor world 2% of what we spend saving ourselves from the virus – so that they can fight it too

2020 April 16
by Paul Vallely

It was hardly a surprise to be told that we are in for three more weeks of lockdown. A fortnight ago we were told that the peak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic would occur around the middle of this month. Now the experts are shifting it forward another week or two, with deaths continuing at a high level for some time.

Of course, the lockdown is causing problems – physical, financial and psychological. But it was chastening to read this message from an Indian doctor in the UK: “Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practice it,” he wrote. “Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water… Most of the ways to ward off the corona are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor. All of us who are practising social distancing and have imposed a lockdown on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are.”

Aeroplanes are not necessary to the transmission of plague. The Black Death in the 1340s showed that as it swept across Europe killing as many as half the entire population. Modern methods of transport have undoubtedly accelerated the speed with which pandemics can proceed. But the responsibility of the rich to assist the poor in combating this disease is not rooted in our culpability for air travel. It is a question of both moral imperative and enlightened self-interest.

Anyone who has travelled through the favelas of South America, the slums of India, or the vast shanty town of Kibera outside Nairobi – where more than a million Kenyans live cheek by jowl in homes which lack clean water and sanitation – will have some understanding of the way that this disease will spread like wildfire once it arrives there.

Tomorrow the finance ministers of the world’s leading nations are gathering, by video, for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. They will discuss a multi-trillion dollar strategy to prevent the imminent global recession from turning into an economic crisis as terrible as the Depression of the 1930s.

It is important that they do not forget the world’s poorest people. African nations were due to make $44 billion debt repayments in 2020. These must be frozen or entirely wiped away. Aid and cheap loans of $100 billion have been promised; that figure needs to be doubled. Poor nations also need new digital data systems to spread accurate health messages to mobile phone users, collect data on symptoms, keep track of outbreaks, target cash to the hardest-hit sectors, and monitor how aid is being spent to prevent corruption.

Can we afford to do that at a time when our own resources are so stretched? All that would cost just 2% of what rich nations have spent on the stimulus packages which have already been put in place worldwide. Without it millions, not just tens of thousands, of deaths could follow, and a movement of refugees could ensue which would dwarf recent migration flows. Can we afford to help? Can we afford not to?

My Church Times column for 17 April 2020

(posted early to lobby the IMF/World Bank meetings on Fri/Sat.)

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