While rich countries like the UK obsess over pubs, the global south is drowning under the weight of coronavirus cases

The pandemic has been tough for Britain, but in countries like Bangladesh, it could be disastrous. There’s no reason our response to the virus shouldn’t benefit nations that need help

Ashfaq Zaman
Monday 06 July 2020 11:13 BST
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Indian officials seen dumping bodies of Covid-19 victims

Cases of Covid-19 are waning in much of the developed world, with life rapidly returning to normal in Europe and parts of North America. There, priorities have shifted away from death tolls to travel plans and in some cases, barbeques.

But in some of the poorest countries in the world, the pandemic is yet to peak and health facilities are even more unprepared than they were in the world’s richest countries. Places like the UK now have thousands of ventilators they don't need, stockpiles of drugs they won't use, and coronavirus-experienced doctors who now have limited opportunities to apply their treatment skills. Each of those resources would go a long way towards saving countless lives in the world's poorest places.

We are all facing this virus at different levels, with our countries positioned at various points on the curve (or curves, if there are multiple waves). Sometimes, we forget this, because much of the media coverage has been local rather than global. It has been difficult or impossible for some journalists to travel, and it is natural to focus on death and danger closer to home rather than on the other side of the world.

But that must now change, with Covid cases and deaths peaking this week in Bangladesh and other parts of the Global South.

Because there was less travel between Wuhan, where the virus originated, and places like Bangladesh, we started to climb the curve later than Europe and North America. We are now where Britain was in mid-April – with much less of an ability to save lives and livelihoods.

My own family has various relatives infected with the virus, and we are not alone. There is not a single household I know of that doesn’t have a coronavirus patient within it, or know someone who is infected.

And the measures that flattened the curve in the UK and Europe cannot be simply imported here. Social distancing worked in Britain but is often impossible when millions of Bangladeshis live in crowded housing or severely overcrowded slums. We are one of the most densely populated countries in the world, meaning we are at exponentially higher risk of virus spread.

Furloughing and government benefits provided many with a safety net in Europe, but in Bangladesh, we have 37 million people in abject poverty. Although we had a booming entrepreneurial economy prior to the pandemic, much of the emerging middle class has had no income for three months and is now slipping back under the poverty line just as they had climbed above it.

Bangladesh has one of the most rudimentary healthcare systems in the world. Even by regional standards, our health provision is struggling, with Bangladeshis regularly having to journey to neighbouring India or other south Asian countries for medical care.

Intensive care beds are in short supply, with the wealthy or influential able to secure them – as well as their own at-home ventilators and high flow oxygen tanks – leaving the vast majority without the provisions they need. In the absence of a National Health Service, hospital care is being auctioned to those who can pay and inaccessible to those who cannot. These situations call for unique solutions, such as the sharing of vital medical equipment and ventilators from countries no longer in immediate need – the UK, for example.

The pandemic is creating panic. This cannot be the "new normal" for billions in the world’s poorest nations. Overcrowding, fear of the virus, economic shutdown, and lack of healthcare in the face of death tolls reaching higher peaks is driving many to suicidal thoughts or worse.

Just as Britain built Nightingale hospitals within its own borders, the UK and others must do the same internationally. The NHS now has 22,000 ventilators, the vast majority of which are not currently needed. Bangladesh has fewer than 2,000 – most of which are in private hospitals and inaccessible to the vast majority of Bangladeshis. We have three doctors and four hospital beds for every 10,000 people – the UK has 44 doctors and 22 beds respectively.

If the pandemic has been tough for Britain, it could be disastrous for Bangladesh.

The only way to avert this is to accept that we really are all in this together, and to create a fluid movement of equipment and expertise that can go wherever in the world it is needed. Just as the virus does not respect borders, neither should our response to it.

Ashfaq Zaman is an aid worker and co-founder of CNI News

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