As the COVID-19 pandemic upends the global community, we are all anxious, concerned about our loved ones and livelihoods. There is much heartache here, but there is another tragedy looming in the Global South.
At home, we can take some comfort in our infrastructure. Canada’s government has promised billions of dollars for struggling industries and Canadians. In the US, a $2 trillion relief package will offset plummeting stocks. (Still, there are arguments about whether this will be enough). Our health system is strong, and our manufacturing sector will adapt to produce emergency supplies. I wish this were the case everywhere.
In developing communities, for much of the world’s population, there will be no trillion-dollar bailout. There will be no monthly checks or government support for small businesses.
My thoughts are in rural Kenya, one of the regions where my team and I have been working for 25 years, with smaller medical facilities and fewer staff than urban centres. Mass communication for public awareness campaigns is difficult in remote regions. When our team went door-to-door to deliver prevention information, 20 percent of the people they initially encountered had never heard of coronavirus.
My good friend Joseph Gachira, who heads up our Kenyan health initiatives, told us, “It takes a lot of time to get people convinced. They are confused. We have always had a flu. They ask, ‘What is this other flu that is killing people?’”
As we have come to learn, fatalities from coronavirus don’t discriminate for chronological age, only the susceptibility of the body. Those suffering from hunger, waterborne illness or malaria are at great risk. Malnourished children and expectant mothers living below the poverty line are already vulnerable and may lack basic necessities. Up to 75 percent of people in developing regions lack access to soap and water. Those living in sprawling urban slums can’t practice physical distancing.
But there is hope. The World Bank recently announced emergency support measures to strengthen the COVID-19 response in developing regions. And late last month, Canada set aside $50 million in funding to help vulnerable countries prepare for the onslaught, including immediate funds for international aid organizations like the Red Cross. We need more of this. Governments, local organizations and individuals are critical, now and when this is all over.
We need more people like Wilson Sang, a village elder from Motony, Kenya. Sang walks every day to spread warnings and prevention information about the virus, part of our team of volunteer outreach workers.
“I need to keep going,” he told us. “I have not reached everyone yet.”
The destabilizing effect of COVID-19 will linger longest and do some of the worst damage in places with weak public health systems and poor infrastructure. The economic aftermath alone could undo decades of gains made in human rights, women’s rights, girls’ education and basic food security all over the world.
As we shut our physical doors and our borders, how far are we willing to expand our circle of compassion? Can we save room for our global neighbors? With appeals everywhere and heartbreaking news, it’s so easy to stop. Please, I ask you not to look away from those who are farthest from us.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.