Covid-19 pushing other priorities aside

Wednesday September 02 2020

There was a great piece of news announced last week by the World Health Organisation. Wild-polio has been wiped out of Africa, thanks to a vaccine. It only remains in some isolated parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan where public health officials fight the polio virus against inbred conservative peoples, some of whom who are prepared to kill the health workers on the grounds they are spreading the disease.

This fight to eliminate polio has been going on since 1988, a warning that even when a vaccine for the coronavirus is invented there will be many barriers to surmount before it has done its job.

One must say thank heavens that the battle against polio was practically done and over in Third World countries before the coronavirus pandemic got up speed. Since the coronavirus swept the world the battles against tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/Aids have been slowed down, partly because of peoples’ worries about visiting health clinics, many of which have been closed for fear of contagion. It’s estimated that about 80 percent of programs have been disrupted. One in four people being treated for HIV have reported problems in getting hold of their medications. In India diagnosis of TB cases has dropped by nearly 75 percent. In country after country the coronavirus has resulted in sharp drops in diagnosing TB: a 70 percent decline in Indonesia, 50 percent in Mozambique and South Africa and 20 percent in China. Yet, if ranked by numbers and importance, TB eradication should be given priority over the coronavirus which has only claimed around half a million deaths this year, against TB’s annual 1,600,000. So should malaria treatment where also more lives are being lost than those from Covid-19.

According to the New York Times, a 3 month lockdown across different parts of the world and a gradual return to normal over the next 10 months could result in an additional 6+ million cases of TB and 1.4 million deaths from it.

Measles immunisations have been suspended in 27 countries. Western companies making coronavirus test kits are diverting their resources to producing tests kits for it because they can sell that for €10 against 18 cents for a rapid malaria test. Moreover, restrictions on air and sea travel have severely limited the delivery of medications to the hardest-hit regions.

It’s quite amazing that Africa, despite the hurdles, has done better than any other continent in fighting the coronavirus. Is this because its population is relatively young? But India’s is also young and now has a million cases, a world record. It’s more likely that one reason is that the virus was late in coming to it, giving time for preparation, and because there is less human traffic with the rich countries. Most important is that Africa confronts so many of the world’s diseases it has built up the infrastructure to deal with them. For, example because of dealing with the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa, medical staff already had in storage protective suits and head-coverings and knew how to act when it came to hygiene and isolation.


The African “good news” somewhat balances the bad when it comes to epidemiology. But when we start to look at the economics of development the story is largely but not entirely a negative one. The International Monetary Fund says that the continent, after 25 years of rapid growth, with some countries being the fastest growing economies in the world, will suffer its worst recession since the 1970s. The World Bank talks about what the Latin Americans used to call “a lost decade”

In the fragile states- Somalia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and those of the Sahel- hunger is steadily advancing. The UN’s World Food Program and NG0s are fully stretched already. A devastating attack of locusts in East Africa has added to the misery. There has also been a sharp loss of markets in the developed world.

This is the price of the coronavirus which was incubated in China but was spread mainly by the highly developed countries in Europe, Japan and North America. Have they shown any signs of compensating Africa,Latin America and India for the damage and destruction they have caused? Not one bit.

We don’t need to be told that if there is a vaccine the developing countries will be last in the queue. President Donald Trump will insist on “America First”. Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia will quickly follow.

For 17 years Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune/New York Times