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In a time of Corona

There’s hardly a person alive who doesn’t know that the Third World continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America are having a desperate struggle fighting the Corona virus. At a time when the richer countries are winning the fight against the virus many Third World countries- like Brazil, India and South Africa- are overwhelmed by it.

But we shouldn’t give in to our natural sense of despair.  John Stuart Mill, the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century, regretfully wrote in 1828, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when

others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage”. Indeed, this is true in my modern-day experience. The cynic seems to be listened to more than the optimist. Let’s not go along with that, despite the ravishes of the pandemic.

Instead let’s get on with hope. To begin with, it seems to be true that, South Africa apart, African countries have been spared the full onslaught of the virus. We are not completely aware of the reasons but mentioned are the speed with which they prepared themselves as it spread in Europe, their hard-won experience from the days of the Ebola virus, and the youth of their populations. 

Another reason for hope is those big countries which could quickly turn things round within a couple of months if not less if they changed their retrograde policies. Brazil and India could have avoided their present terrible predicament if their respective president and prime minister had acted sooner. They acted as if they did not believe what the scientists were telling them- that the spread of the virus would speed up if precautionary measures weren’t taken immediately. In contrast, the other country with a large population that took science seriously and planned ahead, China, has had success. The number of deaths per day for months has been but a handful, although now, here and there, there are some worrying outbreaks.

Why should that analysis of events on three continents give us hope? Because in India and Brazil the high rate of deaths were essentially man-made- by the prime minister and the president. This could be undone by a change of government in these two democracies. Brazil’s election is soon but unfortunately India’s is three years away.

But if the politicians changed gears India could start to imitate China right now (at least to some degree) and Brazil could imitate its neighbor, Uruguay. Shouldn’t we conclude that politics is the first answer to Covid 19, and medicine the second?

That’s why we should speak of hope. The virus could be quickly overcome, but only if sensible policies are implemented at once. If India and Brazil could join Russia, Western Europe, North America, Australia and China which are getting the better of the disease already, Covid 19 will be almost defeated. The glass is potentially more than half full than half empty.

As it goes for Covid, so it goes for poverty. The developing countries, when they pull their finger out, can change the conditions their people live in quite rapidly. One saw this with the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil- 2003 to 2010- which introduced a conditional cash-transfer scheme for the poor, Bolsa Familia, and effectively eliminated poverty. It’s deplorable that under the present conservative government poverty has now returned. In Mexico its government’s Opportunidades program has done the same job. In India the last Congress-led government made enormous progress over a decade in reducing poverty. 

Needless to say, when the virus recedes it will have left its scars behind- a sharp increase in poverty.  The virus has set back economic growth in the Third World by some three years. It will be tough, but possible, to make up that lost ground.

Going back a few years enable us to see what can be done. From 1990 until 2019 the number of extremely poor people fell from 2 billion, or 36% of the world’s population, to 630 million, or just 8%. Most of those who were left in poverty lived in sub-Saharan Africa or countries where war was being waged, like Yemen and Syria (Fortunately, there were and are only a handful of these.)

A study from Oxford University reports that 490 million people in 70 countries have suffered materially from the pandemic, reversing almost a decade of gains. Even so, there is bright news from the largest of Third World countries, China, whose president, Xi Jinping, claimed in February that it had abolished extreme poverty. 

At this point, may I remind the reader that if he or she wants to believe in hope what counts when we measure poverty is numbers of people not numbers of countries. If we are told that, say, 70 countries are mired in poverty but one is not, the brain tends to be overwhelmed by the digit 70 not the one and assume the developing world is going downhill. Yet when some of the 70 have populations of ten million or less this is nothing when set against China’s population of 1.4 billion 

Indeed, China is the unquestionable leader in the techniques of eradicating poverty. There may not be much democracy and human rights are not sacrosanct, but people need a decent minimum of a satisfactory life first and foremost. China is the only dictatorship that provides that. The others don’t, which is why China stands out.

Ask an African peasant or urban slum dweller would she/he rather live in China where there is no serious poverty than in his/her present country where they have to scrape a living, I believe, if they were informed, they would choose the former.The politics would be very much a secondary consideration when it comes to feeding their family, having a well-made roof over their head and basic medical attention and education for their children, all of which these days China provides universally.

We shouldn’t worry too much about the fast growth of Chinese economic activity in Africa. If Africa can’t move to China, let the mountain move to Africa!  Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has fallen into recession for the first time in a quarter of a century. Some experts say before Covid runs its course living standards will have been set back by 25 years in a quarter of the sub-Saharan countries. It could well be that China can help more than the Western world in getting these countries back on their feet.

There was much activity going on in pre-pandemic Africa that gives hope. In recent years Tanzania has grown at 5%, on occasion more, reducing its poverty faster than any other country. Ethiopia has grown at over 10% and a good number of other countries at over 5%. These winners put their growth rates near the top of the world’s league table. Covid 19 and in Ethiopia’s case, an unnecessary civil war, have set them back. They should be able to return to the growth paths they had before the pandemic. 

The great philosopher of modern times, Bertrand Russell, pointed out, “Maintaining a sense of hope can be hard work.” I would say that without this hope recovery and success will take longer to achieve.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power for 17 years was a foreign affairs columnist of the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has written eight books on foreign affairs. His latest is "Conundrums of Humanity- the Big Foreign Policy Questions of the Day".

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