Paul Vallely: Leaders must not forget the poorest

16 April 2020

It is both moral and in rich countries’ interests, says Paul Vallely

Leasers of the G20 nations speak via video conference at the end of March

Leasers of the G20 nations speak via video conference at the end of March

IT WAS hardly a surprise to be told this week 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: deaths will be 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 prac­tise it. 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.”

Planes 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 at 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 that lack clean water and sanitation — will have some understanding of the way in which this disease will spread like wildfire once it arrives there.

On Friday, the finance ministers of the world’s lead­ing nations are gathering, by video, for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the 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 of that would cost just two per cent of what rich nations have spent on the stimulus packages that 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?

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