Forty million people. That many people could die worldwide from coronavirus unless we see urgent intervention, according to Imperial College London. We could see the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster since World War II unfold.
To talk of the world feels tough in these times. We’re all intimately feeling the painful impact of coronavirus. It threatens us all. We are on day 17 of lockdown here in Madrid. The highlight, if anything can be called a highlight in such a depressing time, is when we have cheered from our windows and balconies in tribute to our health workers. They, together with humanitarians, carers and concerned friends, now hold up our world, which is falling to its knees.
But we must talk of the world. We all need each other’s help right now. It is clearer than ever that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe. As former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who beat Ebola in Liberia, put it: “Coronavirus anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.”
Currently, rich countries are the epicentre of this deadly virus. My dear partner, a nurse, tells me of the heartbreaking stories that numbers can’t tell. Of doctors forced to choose who to let die, and who to save. Some of our elderly have been found abandoned and dead in their beds. And yet that is in a country in which we have a doctor for every 250 people.
Now consider a country like Zambia – which has one doctor for 10,000 people. In Mali, there are three ventilators per million people. Coronavirus, yes, threatens us all – and it preys through the colossal cracks that divide our world. And makes us all less safe as a result.
We can beat this pandemic – and avert catastrophic loss of life – if we take it on in every country. For every person. Governments must know: there’s no other choice right now.
Poor nations with weak health systems are drowning in debt, while rich nations are showing they can unlock trillions to build new hospitals and keep their economies alive.
That means stopping coronavirus from exploiting the inequality between rich and poor nations. Poor nations with weak health systems are drowning in debt, while rich nations are showing they can unlock trillions to build new hospitals and keep their economies alive.
It means stopping this virus from exploiting the inequality between rich and poor people in every country. While the richest in countries across the globe are getting tested and treated fast, with healthcare and cash to get by, most of humanity face this crisis with neither.
And it means stopping this crisis from exploiting – as it is already – the inequality between women and men. Women make up 70% of health workers and carry out most of the care work – for free, that is holding up our families and our communities more than ever.
Is there a more frightening example of how coronavirus exploits inequality than what it means for people in conflict zones and refugee camps? The world is watching camps in which one refugee shares a doctor with 25,000 people. That the virus is on the brink of entering refugee camps – like the many places where Oxfam is providing desperately needed humanitarian response, where social distancing is often impossible and clean water often unavailable – must alarm us all.
The time has come for the massively ambitious plan to overcome this crisis, on a scale we’ve never seen before in our lifetimes. We cannot wait. Every government, institution and person must play its part. And the richest and the most powerful among us must bear the greatest cost – as we, altogether, play our part to bring our world together to beat this deadly virus.
The leaders of the world’s richest governments, the G20, who met last Thursday committed to “do what it takes”. That is welcome news. The wheels of global cooperation are, thank goodness, finally turning. But for the scale of emergency before us, it is not good enough. It is not concrete enough. We need far more than a polite warm-up exercise.
Oxfam is calling today for a package of nearly $160 billion to avert the kind of loss of life Imperial College London have now warned us all about. This would be enough to double the health spending of the world’s 85 poorest countries, home to 3.7 billion people.
We are calling for immediate debt cancellation of poor countries, and massively increase aid to them. A Global Public Health Plan and Emergency Response, we believe, can help stop coronavirus from killing millions of people.
It means over 10 million new paid and protected health workers and supporting local humanitarians in communities already responding.
It means healthcare must be free everywhere. Free testing and treatment for everyone.
It means a huge investment in prevention – from upscaling public health promotion to ensuring access for humanitarian workers. We need to give people the basic facilities to wash their hands.
It means governments must requisition all private healthcare facilities to tackle this virus and other essential healthcare needs – as in fact Spain has done.
And it means getting a global agreement now so that vaccines and treatments, when ready, are rapidly available to everyone – for free. This cannot be a time for big pharmaceutical companies and other big companies to find a way to plunder this crisis for profits.
One hundred and sixty billion dollars sounds like a lot. It’s entirely possible. It’s less than 10% of the US fiscal stimulus to tackle coronavirus. It’s far more than what government donors are committing already.
Only powerful, palpable political action by our governments – coming together – will now do. There can be no half measures and no excuses. Every life matters equally and saving them cannot wait.