Poor nations face bigger risks in easing restrictions

Published April 18, 2020
SOFIA (Bulgaria): A police officer talks to protesters in a predominantly Roma quarter of this city. The Roma were protesting measures taken by the authorities to curb the spread of Covid-19, arguing that they would lose jobs.—Reuters
SOFIA (Bulgaria): A police officer talks to protesters in a predominantly Roma quarter of this city. The Roma were protesting measures taken by the authorities to curb the spread of Covid-19, arguing that they would lose jobs.—Reuters

BEIRUT: As some wealthier Western nations begin easing coronavirus restrictions, many developing countries want to do it too, but they cannot afford the luxury of any missteps.

They lack the key tools — a sturdy economy, well-equipped hospitals and large-scale testing that are needed for finding their way out of the pandemic. Even a spirited public debate about an exit strategy seems unthinkable in countries battered by conflict, corruption or poverty.

Consider Lebanon, a tiny country teetering on the abyss of bankruptcy with a fragile health system and a restless population. A month-long lockdown has thrown tens of thousands more people into poverty, pressuring the government to loosen restrictions. But medical resources are limited, prompting doctors to call for continuing them, even at the risk of a social explosion.

It’s the same in many developing countries: Easing lockdowns could increase infections and quickly overwhelm hospitals with limited beds and breathing machines. Keeping restrictions in place risks social upheaval and more economic losses.

At the same time, inadequate testing and a lack of transparency could lead to misguided decisions, said Rabah Arezki, chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank and a senior fellow at the Middle East Initiative.

“I worry that a disorderly release of the lockdown would be doing more harm than good in the context that we are navigating without statistics and relevant data,” he said.

Even wealthy nations have little room to manoeuvre. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, announced a slight easing of restrictions, including reopening most shops next week. But Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that restarting the economy too quickly could rapidly overwhelm its comparatively robust health care system.

Western nations also face a severe economic downturn, but the impact is softened by massive government rescue programmes for businesses and struggling families, including $2.2 trillion in the United States.

The International Mone­tary Fund said it’s prepared to commit its $1tr in lending capacity to needy nations. The world’s richest countries agreed to temporarily freeze poor nation’s debt obligations, mainly in Africa.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has gone further, appealing to richer countries and international financial institutions to write off the debts of poorer countries.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2020

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