Coronavirus is currently tearing its way through the Western world. But the loss of life, destruction of the economy and paralysis of infrastructure will be exponentially worse in the developing world - and it could lead to a migrant crisis the likes of which Europe has never seen before.
Worst case scenarios in the UK mention perhaps half a million deaths, if no measure were put in place to stop the spread. This would be a tragedy never before seen in peacetime. This will pale in significance, however, once the disease starts to spread in places like sub-Saharan Africa, to say nothing of conflict zones like Gaza, Yemen or Iraq.
The Gaza Strip already has some of the poorest medical care and health outcomes of anywhere in the world. And the cramped living conditions - where 2 million people live in an area the size of Detroit (which has only a third of the inhabitants) - are the worst circumstances for attempting to contain an epidemic.
Added to this, Gazans are disproportionately young; almost half of them are under 14, and the median age is just 18. This matters because we know that children are the main carriers of the disease, spreading it to older, more vulnerable relatives.
When these crowded conditions are known to increase the likelihood of people transmitting infectious diseases, how are Gazans supposed to practise self-isolation when they are living in such an over-developped territory with only 50 or 60 ventilators available?
But Gaza is not the worst place in the Middle East to contract COVID-19. Yemen’s war-ravaged population will almost certainly be brought to its knees by the virus without intervention. The five-year war in Yemen has left 10 million people at risk of famine and has decimated the nation’s healthcare system. Even basic sanitation is often not available.
Access to clean water takes on a whole new dimension in the midst of this global pandemic. The advice in the Western world is to wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water - but this means nothing to the 40% of the world who do not have access to basic hand washing facilities.
The situation is similarly dire in Iraq which, despite quarantines and lockdowns, has a healthcare system that is poorly-equipped at the best of times. Iraq’s body count will be exacerbated by the country’s porous border with the regional disease epicentre of Iran (the entire Iran-Iraq border is opened annually to facilitate pilgrimages for Shia Muslims).
Many in Europe and North America are understandably preoccupied with the health emergencies at home. It is only natural to be more concerned about what is happening on our doorstep; the virus, however, is borderless. And so are its most desperate sufferers.
Just as the Syrian conflict led to the largest mass migration since the second world war, the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to one even larger - and potentially more dangerous. Syrian doctors believe the virus has already taken hold in the country’s refugee camps.
As thousands, or perhaps even millions, die, the world’s most desperate people - many of them in sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East where there are already well-established people smuggling networks - will look for safety.
Whereas the last migrant crisis was driven by the need to avoid terror groups and airstrikes, the next one will be based on the need for basic healthcare. And unlike in the past, the migration bottlenecks of Libya and Turkey are unlikely to cooperate with Europe in holding back the tide - particularly if they themselves are facing their own epidemics.
Just as Europe has begun to “flatten the curve” of the outbreak, and begins to assess the economic and social fracture caused by the disease, it may be faced by a second wave - not only of the disease, but of the financial and societal strain caused by an influx of migrants.
Just as there have been reports of the super-rich fleeing their homes as the virus spreads, it is only natural that the super-poor will do the same.
The only solution is to support communities in these places before it is too late. International aid has become almost non-existent in this crisis. Even EU solidarity has disappeared, replaced by Chinese assistance which led to Italians chanting “grazie Cine!” and the Serbian President going so far as kissing the Chinese flag.
PR-driven aid is one thing; providing real opportunities to those most affected is something else. We can all do this by funding and working with aid agencies who are already on the ground to try and halt the outbreak in the Global South before it is too late.
The charity that I run, the Lady Fatemah Trust, uses our ‘Mothernomics’ model to empower widowed mothers in places like Iraq to be economically productive. That productivity can save lives beyond their own. Recently, many of them have found employment manufacturing face masks to hold back Iraq’s epidemic.
If COVID-19 cannot be stopped there, those widowed mothers and their orphaned children may soon be arriving at our doorstep in Europe. And that is something neither our governments nor our societies are prepared for.
- Mukhtar Karim is the CEO of the Lady Fatemah Trust.
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