Andres Oppenheimer

Coronavirus will be an even deadlier pandemic in developing countries | Opinion

While we are all watching the news about the explosion of COVID-19 cases in the United States, Spain and Italy, we will soon face a bigger problem.

After talking with almost a dozen experts from some of the world’s leading universities, I’m much more worried about what might soon happen in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean than about the latest U.S. or European pandemic statistics.

We may see a much more severe crisis in the developing world, where billions of people live in cramped places, and don’t have access to running water, soap, hand sanitizers or the possibility to benefit from $2.3 trillion emergency relief packages like the one approved by Congress.

Nearly 3 billion people — 40 percent of the world’s population — “lack basic hand washing facilities,” according to a 2019 joint study by the United Nations World Health Organization and the UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s agency. The vast majority of these people live in developing countries, the report says.

Likewise, while U.S. hospitals are in dire need for more ventilators — the mechanical breathing machines used to treat severe coronavirus patients — to supplement the estimated 160,000 in U.S. hospitals and the additional 12,700 in the national strategic stockpile, many hospitals in poverty-stricken countries don’t have any of these devices.

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In Haiti, according to a tweet by my Miami Herald colleague Jacquie Charles, government officials estimate there are only 100 ventilators in the whole country, and local press reports say the real number may be closer to 50. In Venezuela, many hospitals, at times, lack soap and water.

Economically, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the developing world will be much more severe than in rich countries, unless there is a global effort to mitigate its affect on poorer countries.

Once the pandemic is over, the United States is likely to recover much faster than poorer ones, and not just because it has the ability to literally print U.S. dollars, the world’s strongest currency. Many American workers will be reasonably well-equipped to compete in the post-coronavirus world economy.

Americans’ work and study habits will probably change for good, since the coronavirus quarantine will accelerate ongoing trends toward working from home, e-learning and e-commerce, which for tens of millions will become the new normal.

It will mean that many Americans no longer will have to go through the waste of time — and stress — of driving hours to and from where they work. That, in turn, will leave people with more disposable time to spend with their families, and it will help reduce traffic and pollution in big cities.

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But in many Latin American countries, tens of millions of people live in poverty. They don’t have laptops, or an internet connection, or a decent education to insert themselves in the global internet economy.

“In Mexico, more than 4.5 million people aged 15 and older don’t even know how to read and write,” José Narro, the former president of Mexico’s biggest university, UNAM, told me. “For them, the gap between rich and poor will widen.”

Harvard University professor Ricardo Hausmann, an expert in global-development issues, told me that the United States and other rich countries should offer financial-relief measures — perhaps administered by the International Monetary Fund — to help Latin American countries cope with the crisis.

“This is the first crisis in which the United States is not trying to coordinate with other countries to try to find a global response to the problem,” Hausmann told me.

He’s right. President Trump, a populist nationalist, minimized the COVID-19 crisis for two months before acknowledging its seriousness, and then treated it as a “Chinese” and “foreign” problem.

That’s outright stupidity. This is a global phenomenon. There is no way the United States will be able to seal its borders permanently once it contains the crisis. Lacking U.S. leadership and a coordinated international response, the virus will eventually make its way back to America if it infects the billions of people who don’t have soap nor water in the developing world.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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