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How many among us would believe that another successor of the ongoing, deadly pandemic is looming on the heels of the coronavirus: a pandemic of starvation, illiteracy and poverty?

By Nazarul Islam

In the end, only the ‘Lord’s will’ shall prevail. This is what we like to believe. How many among us would also like to believe, that another successor of the ongoing, deadly pandemic is looming on the heels of the coronavirus: a pandemic of starvation, illiteracy and poverty?

In case we may stray away from our focus, we must be reminded that Humanity is not only faced with the current global, health pandemic but also its successor, global humanitarian calamity! And, there should be no doubts about it!

Experts have all this, pretty much calculated in the palm of their hands. We could be looking at a severe ‘famine’ in about three dozen countries. Are we prepared? Our planet is faced its most serious humanitarian crisis since World War II. Developing countries have enormous vulnerabilities, such as overcrowded slums and health systems in which doctors are scarce and ventilators almost nonexistent. For the kind information, ten countries in Africa have no ventilators at all.

Often we like to advise people to protect themselves from the coronavirus by washing their hands with soap and water, but more people worldwide have a cellphone (5.0 billion) than they have the ability to wash their hands at home (4.8 billion). Almost 4 out of 10 people worldwide, a total of 3 billion people, don’t have hand-washing options at home, according to U.N. estimates.

For doctors and nurses in poor countries, the challenge is not just a lack of face masks: More than one-third of health centers in impoverished countries don’t have hand-washing facilities, the U.N has reported.

Truly horrifying images have hit us, originating from Guayaquil, Ecuador—of bodies left to rot in the street. These have kept underscoring the risks in the developing world. Yet there also exist countervailing factors, The virus is particularly likely to kill older people, especially those suffering from pre-existing medical conditions, and that’s where developing countries have a huge advantage. Only 2 percent of people in Angola, Burkina Faso or Kenya are over the age of 65. In Haiti, the figure is 5 percent; in India, 6 percent. In contrast, 23 percent in Italy and 16 percent in the United States are over 65, according to figures released by the World Bank.

Likewise, 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, a significant risk factor for the coronavirus. That is a far greater share of the population, than what exists in the developing world. If we pool all that together, can we imagine how badly Covid-19 may strike the poor countries?

‘We just don’t know,’ Esther Duflo, an M.I.T. economist who won the Nobel in economic science last year, wrote in one of his recent pieces.

Dr. David Nabarro, a veteran U.N. global health expert, put it this way: ‘We can only have hypotheses, and the hypotheses are vaguely hopeful.’

I share that view: As a purely medical matter, I’m not as pessimistic about the impact on the developing world as some other commentators are. But I greatly fear that the indirect impact shall be devastating.

Polio eradication campaigns are being suspended. The same is true of vitamin A distribution, which saves children’s lives and prevents blindness. School feeding programs have often been shut down along with schools.

In Bangladesh, where the economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus, a recent survey by a respected aid-group, Brac, found that household incomes have declined an average of 75 percent. Factory workers saw incomes drop by 79 percent, drivers by 80 percent, city day laborers by 82 percent, maids by 68 percent and rickshaw pullers by 78 percent. Four in 10 respondents had three days’ worth of food at home or less.

Again, based on the scenario drawn through the survey, a number of recommendations have also been made, including:

Focus must be drawn towards large-scale awareness campaigns on prevention, management and treatment should run on TV and social media.

Food assistance must be immediately reached to the millions of households suffering from acute food shortage across the country, to halt them from leaving their homes to find work to feed their families.

People who have returned to villages from urban centers are not enrolled in any social safety net programs and so need proper delivery mechanisms to get food aid immediately. Special attention is needed to keep the agricultural value chain from stalling. Plummeting prices of agricultural products and costly transportation costs can increase rural poverty and create social unrest.

The harvesting of boro rice will start from mid-April to continue till the end of May. Advance purchase of crops by the government can ensure the required money for the farmers to start harvesting. Plans and mechanisms should be devised to financially assist the rural businesses to recover loss and be operative again.

Dr. David Nabarro, a veteran U.N. global health expert, put it this way: “We can only have hypotheses, and the hypotheses are vaguely hopeful.”

I share that view: As a purely medical issue, I’m not as pessimistic about the impact on the developing world as some other commentators are. But I greatly fear that the indirect impact will be devastating.

(The Bengal-born writer lives in USA and regularly writes for American, Indian and Bangladesh newspapers, and also contributes to Sindh Courier)

 

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