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The First Sign of Disaster has Appeared: Cries of the Poor in Developing Countries during the Pandemic

Banner image: medical workers treated the sick after putting on their personal protective equipment (Source: CEDAR’s partner)

“For poor places, [the spread of COVID-19] implies calamity.”

‘The Next Calamity’, The Economist, 28th March

Globalisation has made it impossible for any one country to avoid the risk of being affected by contagious diseases. When there is a pandemic, developed countries can still make use of their resources to procure pandemic prevention materials. They can also utilise their financial reserves to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on their medical systems and economies.

For many poor and densely populated developing countries, their medical systems were already vulnerable even before the pandemic and there had always been a lack of social welfare. When this pandemic of the century strikes, its impact on societies and people’s livelihoods are disastrous, as noted by the Economist.

The reality is that the first sign of disaster has already appeared.

As early as the end of January, the World Health Organisation worried that the disease would spread to the south Asian and African countries, where they were ill-equipped to fight any pandemic.

By late April, at least 185 countries have recorded confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection. Over 2.5 million people have been infected while over 170,000 have died from the disease. Even though it appears that America and several European countries are currently the most severely affected countries, many experts point out that the relatively low numbers of confirmed cases in poverty-stricken countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal may be due to the fact that the local authorities lack resources to carry out large scale testing for coronavirus. This means that the numbers of infections in these countries are probably far higher than what has been reported.

Unfortunately, the poor developing countries have always receive less attention than developed countries. It is the same in this instance. Even though the disease is a pandemic, the world’s attention is not on the poor countries and their people.

Disease prevention in Slums

How are the poor countries and their people fighting the pandemic? What difficulties are they facing?

Washing your hands frequently and reducing social contact are the most basic disease prevention measures. Yet to many slum inhabitants in Bangladesh, washing hands with soaps may not be possible, especially to those who do not have access to running water and may not even be able to afford a bar of soap.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a 1.8 meters of social distance, while the WHO suggested people stay at least one meter away from others who are sneezing or coughing. This is totally out of the question in slum areas in Bangladesh, where many people are crammed into a small space. Moreover, it has always been difficult for slum inhabitants to access medical services. If anyone shows symptoms of COVID-19, it will be extremely hard for the person to avoid spreading viruses to others and receive immediate medical treatment.

At the time of writing, the Bangladeshi government had already implemented lockdown for almost a month. Just like in developed countries, the national lockdown put most of the economic activities on hold.

The textile and clothing sector in Bangladesh is by far the main and most important industry. Millions of workers employed in this sector are not able to enjoy the “luxury” of working from home. We notice that the country’s economy has already been severely hit by the pandemic as many manufacturing orders were cancelled by the international buyers. With the lockdown, millions of people have now become unemployed – this does not even include informal sector workers such as rickshaw drivers. A conservative estimate is that the total number of unemployed reaches 10 million.

When right to work is taken away

Imagine a family of six used to rely on the income of the father who earned about HK$1,000 per month. They could only afford meat on only a day in a month and barely make ends meet. During the lockdown, the rickshaw driver has not had any businesses, and he has not received any help from local authorities. He and his family can only stay in their sheet metal house, with no hope for the future.

What can the rickshaw driver do? Should he leave the city and take his wife and children back to his rural home? But the country is in lockdown and trains and other forms of land transport have completely stopped. Should he stay and wait for the end of pandemic?

The plight of the rickshaw driver reflects a common predicament of many Bangladeshis and the low-income people in other developing countries during lockdown. If their dire situation continues, they will die from starvation.

This is not an exaggeration.

Billions of people in the world were already living in poverty well before the pandemic. They were constantly at risk of diseases, famine, climate disasters and conflicts. This pandemic of the century is pushing them towards the verge of death, even though what kills them may not be the virus.

Time is running out.

Photo taken at a local hospital run by CEDAR’s partner. (Photo provided by CEDAR’s partner.)

Providing help against time

CEDAR are competing against time to support our partners to give “a cup of cold water” to the needy. Our work includes food relief, distribution of pandemic prevention materials, and delivery of medication to local hospitals and clinics.

(1) As a small-scale Christian relief and development organisation, what we are doing may be a drop in the ocean compared to the devastating impact the pandemic has on societies. However, we will do our utmost to light the lives of the poor.

In the long run, we will continue to help poverty-stricken communities develop holistically. Efforts include strengthening their livelihood, health system, and other human rights protection. We will continue to motivate local churches to care for their communities. All of these will provide the poor with greater protection and increase their resilience.

Let us hear the cries of the poor and learn from the early Christians who served beyond their abilities (2 Corinthians 8:3).

Please join hands with us to support the needy now.

(1) For details of the relief work, please click here.

(Originally published in CGST Magazine災難苗頭已現)