• Bloomberg


As countries around the globe try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, nowhere is the task more challenging and the risk greater than in the developing world.

From Southeast Asia to South America, governments are struggling to enforce severe China-style lockdowns. They lack the resources to deploy the testing-heavy, tech-driven measures used by wealthier countries like Singapore and South Korea, which have had more success in keeping business and society open.

“These countries are facing some pretty dire circumstances,” said Barbara McPake, director of the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne. “Their ability to lock down and isolate is more limited than developed countries.”

Vietnam, with 222 confirmed coronavirus cases, on Wednesday joined the growing list of Asian governments telling citizens to stay at home, with the start of a half-month period of isolation to last till April 15. India and the Philippines, which each have more than 2,000 confirmed cases, have ordered lockdowns, too.

Stranded migrants

The aggressive policies are taking their toll. In India, the largest lockdown in the world has stranded tens of thousands of unemployed migrant workers in cities far from their home villages. After Kenya’s government imposed a curfew, police fired tear gas and beat people trying to get home, according to Human Rights Watch. Soldiers are patrolling the streets in Ecuador’s largest city.

Even partial curbs, such as in Indonesia, have had an impact. Daily income for motorbike taxi driver Deny Herlimardany, 42, has dropped by two-thirds to just 100,000 rupiah ($6). The Jakarta resident is struggling to make ends meet with a pregnant wife and two kids, as the country considers harsher measures.

“I will support the government if it decides on a total lockdown for the city, but it should ensure people like me are assured of daily supply of basic food,” he said.

Certainly, the virus has also overwhelmed wealthier nations including the U.S. and Italy. But many developing countries are more vulnerable because of weak controls over their citizens and a lack of funding for effective containment measures. Few have the billions of dollars in stimulus needed to ensure economic and social stability.

Lacking means

The West African nation of Benin, which has 13 confirmed cases, cannot enforce confinement measures because it lacks the “means of rich countries,” President Patrice Talon said. If Benin “takes measures which starve everybody, they will quickly end up being defied and violated.”

Containment measures also are putting a strain on smaller economies as factories shut down. Many are faced with either using financial resources to bolster health care facilities or staying current with international creditors. Budget pressures are worsening in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi put a three-week quarantine on 1.3 billion people. Indonesia on Wednesday slashed its forecast for growth to 2.3 percent this year, from an earlier estimate of 5.3 percent.

A state of emergency already exists in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, where schools, cinemas and entertainment spots are closed until at least mid-April. President Joko Widodo hasn’t implemented a full lockdown for the region, or put curbs on movement throughout the country. The country, with about 1,700 coronavirus cases, has no real social safety net to cover the impact such a move would have on its citizens.

Vietnam said it is weighing a 61.6 trillion dong ($2.6 billion) relief package for citizens who have been economically hurt during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Strained systems

In Africa, efforts to gain control over the situation are made more difficult by weak health care systems already strained by an existing disease burden, with HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria killing hundreds of thousands a year.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, who said mass-testing for COVID-19 is “too expensive,” has suspended movement of vehicles except for essential services and pledged to provide some relief to those whose livelihoods have been affected the most.

The transportation shutdown in Uganda, which has 44 confirmed cases, caught construction worker James Senfuka off guard. He can’t walk for 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) to a site where he works as a mason. With savings running out quickly, he is rationing food to a single meal a day of mostly cornmeal and beans.

“The situation is so bad that I no longer go to work because of the ban of public transport,” Senfuka said.

Younger populations

There are some advantages for less-developed countries. Italy and other European countries have some of the world’s lowest fertility rates and biggest elderly populations, while seniors represent much smaller percentages of the populations in the developing world. Since COVID-19 is particularly lethal among older patients, that could help developing countries weather the crisis.

But that still leaves many of those poorer countries with inadequate health-care systems for those people who do get sick, according to Charlie Robertson, global chief economist with Renaissance Capital.

“While demographics mean they are 7 times less vulnerable than Italy to deaths, their health systems might also be 7 times less effective,” he wrote in a report released on March 26.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.