The threat of COVID-19 to developing countries

By Andrew Fryer

On the 11th March 2020, coronavirus or COVID-19 was officially characterised as a pandemic by the Director-General of the World Health Organisation. To date, over 750,000 people in more than 200 countries have been infected with the disease. For many of these countries, the biggest challenge has been in ensuring the capacity of their healthcare systems to manage the spread of the virus. However, as outbreaks continue to rise globally, there is growing concern for how developing nations with weak healthcare systems, faced with the added burden of limited medical supplies and undertrained staff, will cope.

Challenges to developing countries

Sub-Saharan Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), there are growing concerns that a large number of countries are not prepared for an epidemic of coronavirus. A recent Rand report identified that of the 25 most-vulnerable countries to infectious diseases, 22 were in Africa.

Furthermore, a recent modelling analysis in The Lancet, highlighted that a large outbreak of COVID-19 in SSA could rapidly overwhelm existing health services. When the virus emerged, the WHO prioritised support for 13 countries on the basis of their close transport links with China: Algeria, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. There are now 5,431 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 54 countries across Africa – of these, 1,353 are in South Africa, 261 in Burkina Faso and 233 in Cameroon. To put that into perspective, Burkina Faso ranked 183 out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index in 2017 (the average measure of human development achievements). There is also concern that these numbers significantly underestimate the reality of the situation in the region and as such the pandemic looks likely to cause major challenges for the continent’s under-resourced healthcare systems.

Nigerian man wears face mask to protect against coronavirus

Mitigating impact

Many countries in Africa have adopted a number of preventative measures such as  improved airport surveillance and temperature screening at ports of entry. International flights have been stopped, early cases were isolated and in South Africa, the Government has enforced a 21-day lock down nationwide. It is hoped these actions will help to reduce the potential impact but there is still a growing concern as African countries move from COVID-19 readiness to response.

Whilst the focus for many has understandably been channelled towards a localised response, there is an increased awareness of the potential impact that COVID-19 may have in nations with less resources and weaker health systems, who are likely to urgently require support. Given the challenges observed in China, Europe and North America it is clear that a global approach will be required.

On 25th March, the United Nations launched a $2 billion Humanitarian Response Plan to counter the global public health and humanitarian consequences of COVID-19. A commitment and release of financial resources from partners and donors will go some way to help support the expected demand and address supply chain management, mapping, and stockpiling of COVID-19 response needs.

This recent UN appeal should be welcomed as an essential move to mobilise the international community to fight the common threat of coronavirus. It is essential that donors act quickly to ensure that financial resources are made available for the UN humanitarian appeal supporting frontline efforts to combat the virus and to ensure a consistent supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), medical supplies and critical equipment reaches those most in need, and fast.

Andrew is Project Manager at The Royal College of Emergency Medicine.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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