Of course, migrant laborers and the underprivileged face similar challenges across the globe, as do marginalized groups such as the homeless in richer countries. The situation in Singapore in recent weeks has highlighted the problem in one of the world’s wealthiest countries and international cities, where poverty is “invisible” even though migrant laborers are visibly contributing to economic growth.
The developing world of course has a disproportionate number of slums and shantytowns, which are particularly susceptible to the spread of disease through crowded conditions and poor sanitation. From Orangi Town in Karachi to Dharavi in Mumbai, from Kibera in Nairobi to Neza in Mexico City, life under lockdown is even harder with a lack of toilets and other basic needs and people living in rudimentary housing vulnerable to adverse weather.
Even as global media has focused on how developed countries such the United States, Germany, Italy, France and Spain are finding it difficult to handle the Covid-19 crisis, the health, education and social-security challenges posed by the pandemic are all the more acute in the world’s low- and middle-income economies, especially those living in poverty. The World Bank announced that it would provide up to US$160 billion over the next 15 months to help countries "protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery". Yet is unclear where, when or how these funds will be deployed and managed.
Another social challenge is the stigma associated with the coronavirus. US President Donald Trump has repeatedly and purposefully referred to the “Chinese virus”, defending his use of the term against accusations of racism from his critics. Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro’s politician son Eduardo upset Beijing by blaming China for the pandemic.
People of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to racist attacks. In the developing world, people have been hostile toward patients who have tested positive or are even in quarantine facilities. The emergence of “clusters” of infection, such as in a Christian church in South Korea or an Islamic center in India, have resulted in religious discrimination. In India, some patients who were diagnosed with Covid-19 committed suicide due to the associated prejudice. There is also a misconception in developing countries that this disease has come from rich people who travel by air.
All these recriminations and blame mongering obscure the most glaring and iniquitous discrimination that the pandemic is exposing – the inequality that still exists among nations and within economies. While the rich world is scrambling to procure the most and best medical equipment and medicines they can source for treating their sick – sometimes diverting shipments intended for other countries – low-income economies are not even in the race, with little or no money to buy more than the meager supplies they already have.
This international health crisis has created an urgent need for planning, management and implementation on a global scale. We have to design health policies with the same broad goals for everyone but with methodology of planning and execution tailored for specific national, regional or sub-regional requirements. Health policies have to be country and area specific, with consideration given to the local environment, resources and deliverables available. We cannot treat every disease all around the world in same manner, especially when focusing on preventive measures. Global public health governance – the WHO’s health policy and planning – needs a total makeover and shift from its baseline. The top priority of governments all around the world has to be to rescue the poor and underprivileged in their respective countries.
The coronavirus is named for the apparent “crown” or “corona” seemingly visible in images from electron microscopes. In the Hindi language, a near homophonous word is karuna, which means “compassion”. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, we need to have more karuna for our fellow humans, especially those who cannot make a basic living in this crisis. Only through compassion for all can the world defeat the coronavirus without forcing the most disadvantaged to take the biggest risks and bear the greatest burden.