Dr Peter Saunders

The Developing World and not the West will bear the brunt of coronavirus

Dr Peter Saunders was, until December 2018, the Chief Executive of CMF. Prior to that he was a general surgeon in New Zealand, Kenya and the UK. He is now the CEO of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA), a global movement uniting national Christian medical and dental organisations in over 60 countries,
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

With 80 per cent of coronavirus deaths in Western Europe and the US, the focus of the world’s media has understandably been there. The UK alone has seen over 5,000 deaths to date, and rate of new deaths being reported is doubling roughly every three days.

But COVID-19 is affecting 199 countries and territories around the world.

Among these are 27 countries with between 3 and 40 deaths today (where the UK was on 14-19 March) and 28 countries with one to two deaths today (where the UK was on 5-13 March) – so that’s another 55 countries that on deaths per day are only 9-23 days behind us.

Of those 55 countries over 20 are in the developing world. At the current rate of spread – a twelve per cent increase in global deaths per day – we would expect to hit 100,000 total global deaths by today, 7 April, 500,000 by 21 April and 1 million by 28 April.

But if we were to run this forward to the end of the year what would we find?

new report has claimed that doing nothing to combat the virus would leave the world facing around 40 million deaths this year.

But they also claimed that up to 95 per cent of these could be saved if countries act quickly.

Researchers from Imperial College in London have looked at the impact of the pandemic in 202 countries using different scenarios based on data from China and Western countries.

Their conclusions?

If countries adopt strict measures early (at a stage where there are only 2 deaths per 1,000,000 population per week) – such as testing, isolating cases and wider social distancing to prevent transmission to more people – 38.7 million lives could be saved.

But if these measures are introduced later (at 16 deaths per 1,000,000 population per week) the figure could drop to 30.7 million.

On the other hand, social distancing alone would save only 20 million lives.

The effects of the pandemic are likely to be most severe in developing countries – communication is worse, health facilities are poorer, there are fewer health professionals and a high incidence of chronic infections (like TB) and noncommunicable diseases (heart disease, lung disease and diabetes).

Different demographics mean that older people make up a smaller proportion of the population (21 per cent of people in Wales are in the vulnerable over 65 age-group but only 3 per cent in Ethiopia) but this is more than compensated for by the larger populations and the increased risk posed by larger multi-generation households.

The ten most populous countries in the world include India (with 1,380 million people), Indonesia (273m), Pakistan (220m), Nigeria (206m), Bangladesh (164m) and Mexico (128m). That’s 2,371 million people – about a third of the world’s total population – in just six countries.

The ten next most populous countries include Philippines, Egypt, Vietnam and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with a combined population of over 400 million.

This Is over twice the population of Western Europe (currently 195m).

There will be 25 times more patients needing critical care than beds available, compared to seven times more in high-income countries, the report says.

Seeking people’s compliance with infection reducing measures like social distancing in a wealthy and technologically advanced country like the UK where education levels are high and communication easy – everybody can be reached easily by text and social media – is one thing.

Achieving this in many developing countries where infrastructure, transport and communication systems are poor by comparison, literacy levels relatively low and where governments and police are more likely to be corrupt, unaccountable, under-resourced and unmotivated is another prospect altogether.

According to the BBC, after the lockdown was announced in India last week, people in Delhi and the financial capital, Mumbai, quickly thronged shops and pharmacies amid fears of shortages.

Meanwhile, millions have been left jobless and without money as a result of the shutdown.

It has also sparked an exodus from major cities, where thousands of migrant workers are setting out on long journeys back to their home villages after transport was stopped.

India ranked only 80th in Transparency International’s world corruption perception index in 2019. Indonesia, Pakistan, Mexico, Nigeria and Bangladesh ranked even lower at 85th, 120th, 130th and 146th equal respectively among the 180 countries included.

Corruption means that nothing can be achieved quickly and efficiently. But as the virus spreads, only the most draconian measures will lessen the impact and the countries least able to protect themselves will be among the hardest hit.

Prof Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London and author of the report, said: ‘Our research adds to the growing evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic poses a grave global public health threat.

He adds that ’sharing both resources and best practice is critically important if the potentially catastrophic impacts of the pandemic are to be prevented at a global level.

Strategies to suppress the virus will need to be maintained in some way until vaccines or effective treatments become available to avoid the risk of another epidemic.

The West has huge expertise and now experience in battling COVID-19. But what will we do to help the less-advantaged global south as they face an even bigger challenge?

One thing is clear – if interventions are to have an impact and go any way towards saving 95 per cent of the 40 million who could die this year then we must act quickly. In a matter of weeks, it could be too late.

We cannot wait as long as we did in the West before acting – as developing countries do not have enough hospital beds and oxygen, let alone ventilators to provide back up if prevention of the spread of the virus is unsuccessful.


This blog was originally posted on the ICMDA Blog on 30 March 2020 and is re-posted here by kind permission.



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