Article written by the Portuguese member of Forus ONGD 


One of the most important things that the crisis caused by COVID-19 shows us is the idea that people depend on each other. We realize today that our well-being depends on a set of factors that, if not guaranteed, threaten the survival of each one of us. The interdependence that distinguishes today from other times also shows us that, in the absence of a global response, it will be very difficult to overcome the pandemic.

Since its identification in December 2019, the new coronavirus has infected more than one million people worldwide. However, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the disease as a global pandemic that has so far caused at least 51,000 deaths. The exponential growth in the number of cases that we have seen in recent weeks compromises the finality of any assessment - tomorrow, there are likely to be many more infections recorded. That is why, rather than counting the number of cases, the statistics should alert us to the harsh reality that has suddenly invaded us and to the invisible threat that the virus poses to humanity.

Most countries have implemented strong measures to prevent the spread and control the pandemic. On the European mainland, the outbreak of the disease after the situation in China was brought under control is continually revealing the consequences of the containment measures. Damage to the world economy now seems inevitable, and the measures proposed by governments are similar to those advocated in times of war, when all available funds had to be spent on fighting the enemy. We know, however, that the impact of the crisis will be worse in different parts of the world and depends largely on the ability of each country to deal with the threat. As the situation evolves, warnings have increased about the potentially devastating impact that the spread of the new coronavirus could have on developing countries. In this context, the UN Secretary-General drew attention to the possible "tragic consequences" of COVID-19 on the African continent and called on the international community to keep in mind the need for cooperation and solidarity in order to overcome a challenge which, although shared by the whole world, has a greater impact on some countries than on others. 

In a context where social isolation seems to be the most effective measure to prevent the spread of the virus, the contrasts become increasingly evident. While it is true that an unexpected situation of social isolation can have harmful effects on all of us, the impact of such measures on people who were already in situations of fragility acquires a much greater intensity. These include, for example, people living in urban slums, people living in rural areas without access to health care within a radius of several kilometers or people living in conflict zones. Migrants and refugees, trapped in camps with degrading human conditions, have little or no opportunity to practice the recommended social distancing, while women, besides being in the majority in health services and in the care of the most fragile, are also more vulnerable to violence, especially in the domestic space.

The reasoning can also be applied to the difference between several regions of the world, since the pandemic situation we are experiencing highlights the inequalities that already exist, not only within countries but also between them. The dramatic situation experienced in hospitals, reported by health professionals in countries such as Italy, Spain or the United States of America, leads us to wonder about the impact that the increase in cases will have on countries with a lower response capacity, believing that the pandemic will be considerably more difficult there. Furthermore, while many EU governments have been reluctant to adopt compulsory containment measures because they fear the economic effects of paralysis, in the case of Africa, for example, the choice can often be made between letting the disease spread and starving to death: for many people, staying at home means having nothing to eat and losing the little income that provides their daily subsistence.  

In addition to the increased difficulties in coping with and containing the pandemic, the social and economic impacts in these contexts are also disproportionate. According to an analysis by Eurodad, in the absence of debt relief, the impact of the pandemic on low-income countries could lead to an increase in their debt burden and compromise their emergency response - since, in the period when the authorities are called upon to act more assertively, an amount of approximately $22 billion would be channelled to the creditors of these countries. These are therefore situations of great fragility and highly financially dependent countries where Official Development Assistance (ODA) remains an important source of financing. As an instrument designed to improve countries' response capacity in various areas, particularly in the prevention of infectious diseases, ODA is of exceptional importance in the current context. At a time when we are witnessing budgetary replanning in several countries - in Portugal, the Government has even presented an amending budget to Parliament - it would be important to ensure that ODA commitments remain present and are devoted to strengthening the social sector in countries that receive such contributions, in the hope of mitigating the effects of the pandemic in situations of particular vulnerability.

One of the most relevant aspects of this crisis is the realization that people depend on each other not only to prevent contagion but also to ensure access to essential goods. The absence of workers in supermarkets has never posed such a real danger to survival as it does today. Never in our generation has it been so important to maintain the production of goods that we take for granted. Never has an investment in social sectors been so necessary as it is now. Today we realize that our well-being depends on a set of factors that, not being guaranteed, threaten the survival of each one of us. This has never been more evident than it is today. The interdependence that distinguishes the period in which we live from other times shows us that, without a global response, it will be very difficult to overcome the pandemic. It shows us that we cannot consider ourselves isolated from a problem that affects everyone. It shows us that we cannot solve the problem if we do not look at all the people who live with us on this planet.

On this point, several economists and health experts last week called on G20 leaders to provide financial support to strengthen health systems and the economies of the poorest countries. In addition, the United Nations has also launched a global call for a humanitarian response to combat COVID-19 in the most vulnerable regions to complement the actions already announced. For António Guterres, "individual country responses will not be enough". This means that cooperation and solidarity among peoples are crucial to face this challenge, not only to support those most affected but also because the well-being of all humanity depends on it. As David Adler and Jerome Ross argue, "solidarity is not charity - it is the recognition that the struggle of one is the struggle of all". This has always been the case, but today, given the situation in which we live, this is more valid than ever.