COVID-19 – who gets it?
This weekend saw a sudden speed-up of the virus’s spread and reactions to it.
Sunday had the highest death toll in a single day from the virus in Europe.
A state of emergency was called in many countries. Germany closed its land borders. Others are likely to follow suit. Schools, restaurants, bar, clubs, gyms are closed. Public gatherings are banned, even in cities like New York. Airlines have grounded fleets.
Central banks have made emergency interest rate cuts in a desperate bid to slow the inexorable slide into global recession.
And although the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Europe the epicentre, 26 African countries now have recorded cases. Action on tackling the virus varies, but the most successful approach– as shown by Singapore and South Korea – combines ‘social distancing’, widespread and easily accessible testing, and high-quality public information.
Britain is going against the grain of this accumulated wisdom.
The government of Boris Johnson appears to have adopted a laissez faire approach, based on a theory of ‘herd immunity’ that has been widely condemned as risky and irresponsible by scientists across the world.
Citizens in the UK have been left confused by the lack of clear guidance on ‘social distancing’ and most who have tried to get tested have found the system impossible to access. Even frontline health workers are unable to get tested and complain of lack of the essential protective equipment promised to them.
In an open letter to the government last week, more than 200 scientists working in Britain pleaded for an urgent rethink and called for more restrictive measures of social distancing.
Referring to the relaxed British approach, an WHO spokesperson commented: ‘It’s time for action not theory.’
The government’s health experts say that ‘herd immunity’ would be achieved after more than 60 per cent of the UK population has had the virus. That would be about 40 million people. If the conservative rate of one per cent of those getting infected dying is correct, that means 400,000 deaths. No wonder the approach has been dubbed a ‘callous gamble’ and ‘herd culling’ on social media.
Those most at risk from COVID-19 – and inadequate policy responses to it – are the medically and socially vulnerable: people with disabilities, underlying health conditions and those over 60, who are more likely to develop fatal pneumonia.
Low-paid workers and those in the gig economy are, by the nature of their work, the least able to ‘socially distance’ themselves and may also, due to the precarious nature of their employment feel compelled to work when unwell. Homeless people – more likely to have respiratory problems and to share crowded facilities in hostels – are especially at risk.
Europe is the global epicentre of the virus now, according to the WHO. Events in northern Italy (which currently has the highest rate of infection outside China) have shown that even in the most prosperous places, health services are easily overwhelmed.
The fortress mentality has set in. Some European Union countries are closing their borders, even to each other. At the weekend, the EU announced tough restrictions on the export of medical protective equipment to non-EU states.
But what about poorer countries with weaker health systems, such as those in most of Africa?
Kenya’s health service, for example, has been severely depleted due to a ‘brain drain’ of trained staff going abroad to work. Countries like Somalia have even more fragile systems. Some of the West and Central African countries that have dealt with Ebola at least have some experience of such crises.
Refugees and those fleeing war and violence are perhaps the most vulnerable to coronavirus now.
Already last week Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was raising the alarm, calling for the immediate evacuation of asylum seekers from squalid camps on the Greek islands. The refugees are living in conditions that would provide the perfect storm for a COVID-19 outbreak. There is a confirmed case on the island of Lesbos, which hosts 19,000 migrants in the Moria camp, built to accommodate fewer than 3,000. In some parts of the camp there is just one water tap for every 1,300 people and no soap available.
At the time of writing there are no known cases in refugee camps in Syria. With 6.2 million internally displaced people in the country, and according to the WHO, ‘a fragile health system that may not have the capacity to detect or respond to an epidemic’, it is probably just a matter of time.
In addition, there are four million refugees in Turkey, many of whom will have come from Iran – a country with more than 12,700 recorded cases and probably many more unrecorded.
Hope against closure
Many countries around the world have reacted to the crisis by tightening their borders. On the surface, the reasons for doing so are purely epidemiological, but it also serves nationalist anti-immigrant political agendas.
Migrants are already being scapegoated for coronavirus – although this is illogical as well as unfair. The pandemic is a product of globalization and the ease of air transport. The people who fly most are not those fleeing war and poverty, but the better-off and international elites.
COVID-19 will show us who we are – not as national stereotypes, hopefully, but as human beings. Whether we step up to protect the more vulnerable in society or use our fear to close our doors and hearts to them. Whether we practice the values of a progressive, humane, democratic society or not.
Now is the time to direct more international resources towards refugees and those helping them, and to countries with frail health systems that will find it even harder to deal with the epidemic.
At a local level, there are inspiring signs of people stepping up to the challenge. For example, more than 300 mutual aid groups popped up in Britain over the weekend. They have been putting leaflets through doors offering help and setting up WhatApp groups.
One woman commented: ‘I am a disabled person with a care package. I am self-isolating with my 92-year old mother. We already know that social services and the NHS were overwhelmed before this virus hit. I am very well prepared for months of isolation but I will be needing help before it is over. Finding the Islington Mutual Aid group lifted our spirits and changed our view of the future.’
The challenge will also be to internationalize our humanity in these times of fear and lockdown.