The COVID-19 pandemic could devastate parts of the developing world. But with a concerted, cooperative, and holistic approach, the international community can avoid a large-scale humanitarian tragedy in vulnerable regions – and protect the rest of the world from destabilizing blowback.

AGUNA BEACH – Declining coronavirus infection rates and plans to begin easing lockdown measures in some parts of the developed world have provided a ray of hope after weeks of unrelenting gloom. But, for many developing countries, the crisis may barely have begun, and the human toll of a major COVID-19 outbreak would be orders of magnitude larger than in any advanced economy. With the United States having recently recorded more than 2,000 deaths in a single day, this is no trivial number. If the international community doesn’t act now, the results could be catastrophic.

    Sub-Saharan Africa is a case in point. Several countries there would face significant challenges in enforcing social-distancing rules and other measures to flatten the contagion curve. The region’s already-weak health-care systems could thus quickly become overwhelmed by an outbreak, especially in a high-density area.

    Africa has long suffered from a severe shortage of health-care workers, with only 2.2 workers per 1,000 people (compared to 14 per 1,000 in Europe) in 2013. And few African countries have a meaningful supply of ventilators, a crucial tool for treating serious cases of COVID-19. Nigeria is reported to have fewer than 500 in total, while the Central African Republic may have no more than three.

    Moreover, Sub-Saharan African governments have little fiscal and monetary space (or operational capacity) to follow the advanced countries in countering the massive impact of containment measures on employment and livelihoods. Spillovers from Asia, Europe, and the US – including depressed commodity revenues (due to declining demand and prices), rising import costs, a collapse in tourism, reduced availability of basic goods, lack of foreign direct investment, and a sharp reversal in portfolio financial flows – have already exacerbated these constraints. For those who had access to international capital markets, terms have become notably more onerous.

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