Development, Trade and industry, International relations, Health | Australia, The World

17 March 2022

Outside of the Australian bubble, the collateral impacts of COVID-19 have set low-income countries back years – perhaps even decades. Australia has a responsibility to help, Arunn Jegan and Simon Eccleshall write.

Two years on from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australians should reflect on how lucky they have been since March 2020. To face the pandemic’s spread, Australia had a strong public health system and government response, secure borders, and low unemployment.

Despite failures and challenges, particularly with supply management – vaccines, rapid antigen tests, and of course, toilet paper come to mind – and a regrettable death toll, Australia is again being heralded as international ‘best practice’ in how to respond to a pandemic.

But for a high-income stable country like Australia, a ‘best practice’ domestic response – built on good preparedness and responsible investments – should be a given. The real measure of Australia’s success in responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic should be how well it is able to leverage those strengths to support other, less economically developed countries.

Many low-income countries and areas experiencing chronic humanitarian crises are facing dramatic increases in poverty, food insecurity, and a rise in other infectious diseases as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic – some to the point from where they can’t just ‘bounce back’.

Northern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Yemen potentially risk their food insecurity situations developing into outright famine. In Yemen, an estimated 40 per cent of the population are facing acute food insecurity, and almost half of all children under five are likely to be malnourished by the end of 2022.

The Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Abs, Yemen, reported that the number of patients being treated for malnutrition increased 28 per cent between July and September of 2020 compared with 2019 levels.

More on this: Australia’s problem with Pacific aid

The same can be said about infectious diseases. World Health Organization data reveals malaria is on the rise, with 14 million more cases and 69,000 more deaths of the disease recorded globally in 2020 compared with 2019.

Approximately two-thirds of these additional deaths were linked to disruptions in the provision of malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment during the pandemic.

MSF teams observed this rise first-hand in Batangafo, Central African Republic, where they treated 39,631 malaria cases in 2020, compared to 23,642 in a comparable period of 2019.

The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria also highlighted the same issues with its attempts to treat tuberculosis and HIV in countries where it is working. For tuberculosis, the number of people being treated dropped by 19 per cent, with those on treatment for extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis registering an even bigger drop of 37 per cent. The number of HIV-positive tuberculosis patients on antiretroviral treatment as well as tuberculosis treatment dropped by 16 per cent.

Closer to home, Dr Hemant Bogati, MSF’s Medical Coordinator in Papua New Guinea, confirmed this as an issue there too. He linked it to funds being diverted to combating COVID-19, saying, “a lot of focus has gone to COVID, and funding has gone to COVID, and diseases such as tuberculosis have been left behind.”

More on this: The politics of aid in a crisis

Whilst future pandemic and epidemic prevention, preparedness, and response plans must address the collateral impacts of disease outbreaks, there are also ongoing fights against chronic humanitarian crises, exacerbated by that collateral damage, which need resources now.

Over the coming years, many countries in the world will face dramatic increases in human suffering that are preventable with strong intervention. Following a global crisis as major as the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries will require a scale of economic recovery assistance comparable to that seen in European states after the Second World War through the Marshall Plan.

Australia needs to be part of that effort. Now is not the time for fiscal constraint in the aid budget, and a substantial investment will be required to support recovery in low-income countries.

In May 2022, the World Health Assembly will be discussing a global Pandemic Preparedness, Prevention, and Response Plan aimed at protecting the world from future infectious disease crises.

Their focus must be on protecting the world’s most vulnerable people during disease outbreaks, which includes ensuring the responses to current humanitarian crises are supported with more funding, technical expertise, and resources.

The challenge to countries like Australia will be to value global preparedness as much as domestic preparedness. Ending the next pandemic will require enlightened self-interest – recognising that a pandemic is not over for anyone until it is over for everyone, and Australia is no exception.

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