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Opinion

The Commonwealth’s Response to COVID-19

SG Patricia Scotland and President Kagame of Rwanda last year during the annual commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsis. Credit: The Commonwealth Secretariat

TORONTO, May 13 2020 (IPS) - The Coronovirus pandemic has been an unforgiving test of advanced economies. Health systems in the United States, France, Italy, Spain, and the UK have been put under immense pressure, with shortages of doctors, ventilators, personal protective equipment and the capacity to test for the virus. Their economies have been battered and the consequences are spoken of in terms of the Great Depression.

Hope may have emerged as infection rates decline and governments consider easing lockdown measures, but for many developing countries the crisis has barely begun, and the human toll will be much greater than in any advanced economy. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “For vast swathes of the globe, the pandemic will leave deep, deep scars.”

Advanced economies are trying to mitigate COVID-19’s impact through policy adjustments, and some have made remarkable progress. In the Commonwealth (a voluntary association of 54 independent countries), New Zealand and Canada have shown exceptional resilience through this pandemic.

Developing countries, however, are faced with much more difficult circumstances. In these countries, economies are fragile and medical resources are scarce. Most are commodity dependent and have seen prices fall by 21 percent so far this year. The cost of foreign debt repayments and imports have soared as the value of currencies in developing countries have declined by around 25 percent.

Some African countries have no ventilators at all – essential to those suffering from acute symptoms of the virus. Many countries are simply ill equipped to face a pandemic of global proportions. Malawi, for example, has only 25 intensive care unit beds for its 17 million citizens. And, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), African countries average $12 per citizen per year in health budgets. That is a stark contrast to the UK’s $4000 per citizen per year.

The Brookings Institute recently warned that the impact of COVID-19 on developing nations will be devastating: “2020 will be the first time this century that the number of poor people will rise.” This is in the wake of progress made between 2008 and 2013, during which time almost 100 million people per year were lifted out of poverty.

To stave off disaster in the world’s most vulnerable regions, the international community must do a lot more. Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, said that “Without support from the international community, we risk a massive reversal of gains made over the last two decades, and an entire generation lost, if not in lives then in rights, opportunities and dignity.”

The 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was to be held, aptly, in Rwanda – one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, with a reputation for innovation in many sectors, including health care. The event was recently postponed, however, due to the global pandemic.

Kigali skyline. Credit: The Commonwealth Secretariat

In a statement announcing the postponement, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda stated: “In the coming months, every Commonwealth nation will be fully focused on combatting Covid-19 and its socio-economic impact on our people… We look forward to welcoming the Commonwealth family to Kigali for CHOGM once the pandemic has been defeated.”

According to some, this kind of decision shows how international support has been lacking precisely when it is most needed. Ian Golding, a professor of globalization and development at Oxford University, recently wrote in the Guardian that “The US has turned its back on the world. The UK, like Europe, appears preoccupied with its own medical and economic emergencies; the ability of Commonwealth countries to cope with the pandemic appears to have fallen off its domestic agenda.”

But the Commonwealth is taking steps to ensure its members are supported during this global pandemic. It is hosting a virtual seminar series beginning on May 13, 2020, to help address the challenges they are facing and to exchange ideas for solutions with each other. It has also launched a web-based ‘Coronavirus Response Centre’ and tracker, designed to provide data-driven insights to help policymakers plan and respond to the pandemic.

Noteworthy is a specific online meeting to be held on May 14, 2020, for Commonwealth Health Ministers – its theme is “delivering a coordinated Commonwealth COVID-19 response.”

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland told IPS: “With 54 member countries across five regions and 2.4 billion people in total, the Commonwealth is a powerful platform to propel coordinated multilateral action to tackle this pandemic.

“Commonwealth Health Ministers will convene virtually on 14 May, a few days ahead of the World Health Assembly. The aim is to review the coronavirus response at pan-Commonwealth, regional and national levels; share good practice strategies, solutions and models; and identify priorities for coordinated action.

“Ministers will also discuss continuing and co-ordinated action on other health challenges, including non-communicable diseases, malnutrition, immunisations, and malaria which are priority areas of concern among Commonwealth member governments.”

Rwanda school. Credit: The Commonwealth Secretariat

The virtual seminar series will be led by high-level participants from Commonwealth governments, the Commonwealth Secretariat and other policy experts. Here, participants will gain from the knowledge of other members, including those of Rwanda, the landlocked East African country that has managed to stem the spread of COVID-19 with expertise and skills it developed in tackling the 2018 Ebola crisis.

“In Rwanda, the response was swift, effective, and well organized with a clear objective and clear purpose,” Vedaste Ndahindwa, an epidemiologist working in the World Health Organization (WHO) in Rwanda said.

The Rwandan government was quick to recognize the threat posed by the virus and took to techniques employed in preventing Ebola from spilling into the country from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But, despite having the region’s best response to the outbreak, the number of confirmed cases in the country continues to rise. The country also faces the challenges of globalised interdependence. As trade and supply chains come to a halt across the globe, obtaining supplies during a global shortage is massively problematic. As Ian Goldin says, “globalization means that systemic risks anywhere are a risk to us all.”

Now, more than ever, we must look beyond our national borders and come together as a global community. If we are to avoid a massive humanitarian tragedy and protect the world from the backdraft of ongoing viral epicenters, it is imperative that governments everywhere come together with a cohesive and cooperative response to COVID-19.

 


 
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