SEATTLE, Washington — Even before the COVID-19 Pandemic, or coronavirus, became a household name worldwide, an inability to pay medical costs has long been a concern. This holds true in a surprising number of developed countries but is exponentially worse in developing countries where medical infrastructure is often of patchwork reliability. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed this concern stating, “Now, the virus [COVID-19] is arriving in countries already in the midst of humanitarian crisis caused by conflicts, natural disasters and climate change. They do not have homes in which to socially distance or self-isolate.” It is easy to see that COVID-19 in developing countries is a threat on a whole different level.
Access to Healthcare
The underlying problem of effectively combatting COVID-19 in developing countries is the lack of available and affordable healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, this is primarily because “…in many countries people have no access to social health protection—affordable health insurance or government-funded health services…For almost 100 million people these [medical]expenses are enough to push them into extreme poverty…” Many are facing the nightmarish decision between plunging their families into paralyzing debt to receive life-saving medical treatment or perishing. Others do not have the luxury of choice.
In India, healthcare costs drag a staggering 55 million people into poverty every single year, according to a study completed before the COVID-19 Pandemic. This number will undoubtedly inflate before the pandemic is over, and that is the only representative of one nation. Long term, some survivors of the virus are likely going to be left with chronic health problems requiring care and, therefore, incurring more costs. India’s government is considering cash payouts to citizens, similar to the stimulus checks being sent out in the United States, to help soften the coming storm of economic fallout. The effectiveness of such a strategy is yet to be seen.
The Cost to Healthcare Workers
The COVID-19 Pandemic presents a heavy burden for developing countries already laden with medical issues that can be mitigated with access to the readily available resources of a developed country. As the global COVID-19 Pandemic gathers steam, medical teams around the world are working to the bone, often falling ill themselves. This is already an overwhelming challenge for every afflicted country. The shortages in supplies and trained medical workers are costing lives even in developed nations. Healthcare workers in undeveloped nations are at particular risk both immediately and in the long term.
The Middle East Eye reported that “[s]anctions imposed on Iran have exacerbated the situation [COVID-19 Pandemic] as supplies and medications have been hard to obtain. Public health workers have been called martyrs by social media users.” Medical staff is working hooked up to IV bags as they combat this dangerous threat. There are several memorial posts on social media for Iranian doctors who worked to save lives until shortly before their deaths at the hands of COVID-19.
Stories like these continue to populate social media feeds across the world. Many are voicing a very real fear that medical workers in less developed countries are unlikely to receive the supplies they need until it is far too late. To curtail the contagion, Iran’s President Rouhani issued instructions for all non-essential businesses to close, including religious shrines. This is a considerable change in pace from the previous stance of the Iranian government, which now believes these gathering places contributed greatly to the tenacity of the outbreak in the country.
A Fall in Global Poverty
In the midst of this turbulent time in human history, there is good news. Global poverty has been declining by roughly 47 million annually since 1990. A growing middle class and the continuing rise of the interconnected global economy are pointed to as significant contributing factors to this reduction. According to Nina Pavcnik, a Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, “when countries open up to trade, they tend to grow faster and living standards tend to increase.”
When the quality of living standards increase, so does access to basic healthcare. To that end, COVID-19 in developing nations might have been far worse decades ago in some respects. Even so, the problem of healthcare inequality affects the entire world as the virus crosses all borders, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. Unfortunately, the exponential progress of poverty reduction in recent years could potentially be lost with this pandemic.
Improving Access to Healthcare
Many argue that access to healthcare is a basic human right. Global health has long been a focus of many NGOs as well as policymakers worldwide. The world is making strides, but it is clear that global access to basic medical care largely remains a work in progress. Internationally, groups like the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders spearhead effective efforts to bring about access to healthcare.
The United States has introduced significant legislative initiatives like the Global Health Security Act, which aims to assist nations in need of developing health programs. Regardless of the trajectory these bills take, they are indicative of the critical importance of accessible medical treatment. Health, poverty and global economics are now undeniably interconnected. Health and financial stability for all human beings are ultimately only as strong as the world’s poorest. The effects of COVID-19 in developing countries will ultimately affect the rest of the world.
While this week’s agreement by G-20 nations to suspend debt payments until December for the poorest countries on the continent provides much-needed relief, African leaders caution that this measure is “not enough” in light of the current pandemic. With these concerns in mind, The Borgen Project urges Members of Congress to ensure additional resources for the State Department, USAID and our other development agencies as Congress considers the next emergency supplemental.
– Jack R Leggett III