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COVID-19 and the Challenge of Global Healthcare Disparities

Practicing social distancing at a public health awareness demonstration in Juba, South Sudan. Photo Credit: Alex Mcbride / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
May 7, 2020

The World Health Organization recently called attention to glaring disparities across the globe in the availability of basic supplies needed to slow the spread of COVID-19. South Sudan, a country with a population of 11 million, has four ventilators. Ten countries in Africa have no ventilators at all. The ventilator shortage is, however, only one part of a broader problem. Items like masks, oxygen, and even soap and clean water are in critically short supply; according to the United Nations, only 15% of Sub-Saharan Africans had access to basic hand-washing facilities in 2015.

As Ruth Maclean and Simon Marks write in their piece, “10 African Countries Have No Ventilators. That’s Only Part of the Problem.,” in The New York Times, the prospect of confronting a pandemic with such a shortage of essential supplies is pushing the vulnerable healthcare systems of many African countries to the brink. In recent years, Nigeria has struggled to respond to outbreaks of Lassa fever, measles, and polio, and the Democratic Republic of Congo has been unable to bring its ongoing Ebola outbreak to an end. Malaria also continues to kill thousands across the continent each year.

Maclean and Marks highlight that “the state of public health systems in many African countries is bad enough that many people will not go to a hospital at all, feeling that it is a place of last resort.” Consequently, many become ill and stay home, leading communities to figure out how to safely provide painkillers and decongestants to ailing neighbors.

At a United Nations conference on primary health care in 1978, a goal was set “to tackle the gross inequality in global health, particularly between developed and developing nations.” Although this was enthusiastically welcomed by the governments of many African countries, the rise of free market capitalism in the 1980s rapidly shifted the dialogue to hold every state responsible for providing health care to their citizens. This approach, unfortunately, overlooks the decades of colonialism that exploited colonized nations to the benefit of their colonizers, generating and reinforcing staggering inequalities that contribute to the disparities in health infrastructure that exist today. In April, 88 intellectuals across the continent jointly wrote an impassioned letter to African leaders calling for the enhancement of health workers’ status and the improvement of hospital infrastructure. They raised the idea of universal health care, returning to the central tenet that “health has to be conceived as an essential public good.”

As we contend with the consequences of COVID-19 as a global community, we must not overlook the responsibility that developed nations have to support developing nations through this crisis. Although we are all weathering incredibly challenging circumstances, only through international collaboration can we collectively emerge more resilient and more determined than ever in our efforts to realize global health equality.