Tough choices for decision makers
Balancing public health requirements with economic imperatives is pushing many countries to consider the gradual easing of lockdown measures while striving to contain the pandemic.
The restrictive measures have not been without results in terms of slowing the virus’s spread. But they have also brought to a halt vital economic sectors and disrupted activities that are crucial to the livelihoods of many.
Lifting some of the restrictions and allowing the limited resumption of human activity is on the agenda of many governments across the globe, including the United States and Europe.
The main idea is to ensure a gradual return to economic normalcy within a margin of risk that would be deemed acceptable by public health authorities. There are no guarantees the “re-opening” would not spin out of control; so some governments are looking for safeguards, including the mass use of testing kits, contact tracing technology and prescribed protective gear such as masks.
In low- and- intermediate-income countries, including those of the Middle East and North Africa, there are specific considerations at play.
In the MENA region, COVID-19 has not, thus far, taken the toll it has in developed countries such as Italy, Spain and the US. This makes it tempting to ease restrictive measures in the region. Governments are torn between the pressure to ease restrictions that have had a disruptive impact on vulnerable groups of society and the risk that the region’s ill-equipped public health infrastructure may not be able to cope with sudden soaring rates of infection.
As expected, views are divided. Yale scholars Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak and Zachary Barnett-Howell argue in Foreign Policy magazine that there is reason to think confinement measures and lockdowns might not be the best course of action in all countries.
While defending such measures in the developed world, the two scholars are more reserved about their broad and unrestricted enforcement in developing countries.
They point out that since most low-income countries have younger populations than “wealthy low-fertility nations,” the two groups of countries do not share similar risks and benefits from the strategies implemented so far in the world since the coronavirus outbreak.
“To put it bluntly, imposing strict lockdowns in poor countries – where people often depend on daily hands-on labour to earn enough to feed their families – could lead to a comparable number of deaths from deprivation and preventable diseases,” they added.
Concerns are sharply different among the poorest populations. “Food insecurity and unemployment – not health and safety – are now the top concerns of the extreme poor in rural areas,” they say, basing the observation on research on the ground.
Other experts worry that most of the MENA region and low- to-intermediate-income nations elsewhere could be confronted with the medium-term prospect of food shortages and the unavailability of medical supplies.
World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships Mari Elka Pangestu recently wrote that “the 20 developing countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases derive 80 percent of critical COVID-19 products from just five economies.”
But the first reflex of major producers was to close off borders and prevent exports until they made sure the needs of their own people were satisfied. Others, like Turkey, preferred to use the surplus to flex its soft power.
As the crisis continues, there is likely to be a shortage of food supplies as well. “The poorest countries, which rely heavily on food imports, would be hurt the most. Developing countries on average derive 80 percent of their food imports from just three exporting countries. For fragile and conflict countries the proportion is more than 90 percent, making them even more vulnerable to policy changes by exporting nations,” warned Pangestu.
As the fasting month of Ramadan starts next week, the Arab-Muslim world will find itself in an unprecedented and complex predicament: In a time meant for communal gatherings, people will be requested to respect social distancing, instead. During a season that is traditionally dedicated to religious worship, they will be asked to practise safety first.
It’s a delicate balance and won’t be easy. Decision makers will have to banish partisan and sectarian considerations and transparently flesh out the arguments that justify the sacrifices to be made. This is not the time for old divisive politics. This is not the time for decisions without risks.