The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, but people’s experiences and the economic, social and political ramifications have differed vastly, with particularly devastating effects on vulnerable nations and populations.
This prompted researchers from the Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative (HADRI) at Australia’s Western Sydney University to collate an in-depth snapshot, as at 1 June, of insights from more than 70 academics and professional contributors across 43 states and territories.
You can access the 130-page report here.
“From testing and isolation, through to economic stimulus and education, there are many lessons to be learned,” says co-editor Nichole Georgeou. “Some of the broader trends relate to the idea of community resilience and the role people played in supporting and protecting each other.”
Unsurprisingly, governments that acted quickly and decisively limited the spread of the pandemic, says the other co-editor, Charles Hawkely, by enforcing measures such as widespread testing, social distancing and restricted movements.
State capacity, trust in science and the state, clear and consistent communication translated to languages of migrant groups also stand out, say Hawkely and Georgeou, and civil society and organisations played a key role in buffering the impacts.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, provided “a masterclass” in political leadership, with immediate lockdown supported by regular press conferences and catchy messages like “go hard and go early”, the “team of five million”, “stay home and save lives” and “stick in your bubble”.
Despite multiple health bureaucracies, federalist Australia “escaped the worse ravages of COVID-19 seen elsewhere” as states collaboratively flattened the curve, writes Hawksley, although “the early panic buying of toilet paper and pasta demonstrated things could get ugly quickly”.
In contrast, the UK was slow to react, writes Chris Hesketh from Oxford Brookes University, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson allowing major mass gatherings and suggesting they should allow the virus to spread and create ‘herd immunity’. The nation inevitably ended up in lockdown and suffered one of the world’s highest death tolls per capita.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro scoffed outright at the virus, fuelling Brazil’s “triple crisis” in the health, political and economic sectors, writes HADRI adjunct Izabela Pereira Watts, as he “disdainfully snorted to the public ‘And so what? What do you want me to do? I am a Messiah, but I don’t do miracles’”.
The subsequent outbreak exposed the nation’s cracks in equality, with some cynics saying, “your postcode will determine whether you will die from COVID-19, not your age”. Watts notes indigenous tribes in the Amazon, who face multiple problems from deforestation, illegal land loss and climate change, have been particularly hard hit.
In other areas, community resilience was a beacon, according to the report, with cohesion and solidarity helping places like Turkey, Ghana and Kenya to manage the virus’s impact.
In the Pacific Islands, solidarity bolstered the efficacy of decisive leadership, writes Gordon Nanau from the University of the South Pacific, Fiji, with cohesive social systems and sustainable agriculture supporting those who faced sudden unemployment.
States that politicised the pandemic at a national level tended to be less effective – the US being a prime example. As one of the worst affected continents, politics tended to overwhelm policy, say Western Sydney’s James Arvanitakis and Jason McConnell from the University of Wyoming.
“Since a brief moment of bipartisanship, everything about the virus has become partisan in the US,” says Arvanitakis. “In such a large and diverse nation, what is evident is that any response required a localised approach to garner buy-in from the people.”
Even strong leadership and strict measures couldn’t avert tragic consequences – although the Solomon Islands remain totally free of the virus, 27 people died in rough seas while fleeing a feared outbreak in the capital Honiara.
Some regional responses highlight the human rights fallout resulting from strict government control.
In one such case, Cambodia’s emergency legislation achieved low infection rates but ignited concerns about “restrictions on freedom of assembly, increased surveillance and intensifying public and social media control,” writes Natalia Szabelwska from the Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand.
In other nations, the pandemic response was weakened by political unrest, flailing health care systems and concerns about the economic impacts of lockdown.
Indonesia, for instance, faced “a difficult choice between public health concerns and a bleeding economy,” writes Zulfan Tadjoeddin from Western Sydney University. Their efforts to attract tourists and downplay the risk backfired in an outbreak that called for an emergency response and unavoidable impacts on the tourism industry.
The ongoing pandemic in Chile has intensified neoliberalist social inequalities of their entwined health, economic, political and social crises, says René Leal from the University of Santiago.
“Poorer suburbs are absorbing infections and increased rates of contagion,” he writes, “especially in Santiago, where densely populated suburbs and smaller, more precarious housing conditions are incubating hunger and infection. Such conditions create a dynamic cocktail, not only for maintaining the virus, but for new social conflict, violence and repression.”
As a possible silver lining, the crisis has prompted a National Agreement, which Leal says Chileans hope will move them towards a welfare state modeled by a new Constitution.
On the other hand, Cuba’s strong health care system, based on the premise that health is a universal right, has buffered them with high doctor-patient ratios and well-oiled health promotion and disease prevention systems.
They were one of the few countries to offer international assistance, according to Robert Huish from Canada’s Dalhousie University, offering human resources to 15 other countries, both rich and poor. It didn’t stop the US from maintaining their long-standing embargo with the country and even encouraging others to reject their help.
Other papers explore the use of technology and home in on vulnerable groups, covering diverse issues such as domestic violence in the Pacific Islands, impacts on US health care workers, human trafficking, modern slavery, the predicament of non-citizens in Australia, and the saving grace of NGOs.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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