COVID-19 is a defining moment in human history which must be tackled through unity and leadership.
On the 23 April, the UN Secretary General affirmed that COVID-19 is a defining moment in human history which must be tackled through unity and leadership and that we are only strong as our weakest health system.
Indeed unity and responsible leadership is crucial in dealing with the pandemic and Europe had to learn this the hard way. Let’s take the example of Italy and Spain.
With the rapid rise of cases in Italy and Spain, measures to contain the virus became ever more borderless and less clear cut. Now that the epicentre of the pandemic is moving towards the global south, with countries like Brazil surpassing Spain and Italy in the total number of confirmed cases, we must understand the epidemiological landscape of these countries in order to fight the disease and, most importantly, understand the unequal face of COVID-19.
Why We Need an ‘Epidemiology of the Global South’
As Boaventura de Sousa Santos rightly puts it, ‘[t]he global South is not a geographical concept, […] it is rather a metaphor for the human suffering caused by capitalism and colonialism on the global level, as well as for the resistance to overcoming or minimising such suffering’. Santos argues that we must take into account the ‘epistemologies of the global south’ in order to appropriately tackle (neo)colonisation and oppression. By conceptualising epistemologies as the means by which we seek justification or rationality, Santos states that we must understand the perspectives of those who have systematically suffered the injustices, dominations and oppressions caused by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. We cannot simply implement top down approaches created by the global north on the global south.
Understanding Weaker Health Systems
This pandemic is rooted in decades of underfunding of public health services, and the lack of support or political will to address the social determinants of health such as nutrition and sanitation. In the global south in particular, the differentiated impact on exposure, transmission, and outcome patterns of COVID-19 are quite prominent as countries have to cope with weaker health, social and economic systems.
For example, the 2020 Global Nutrition Report states that malnutrition is a leading cause for death and ill health worldwide. Similarly, the ILO warned that job losses have been escalating and that informal workers, who make up the predominant percentage of the workforce in the global south, will be put on the brink of survival. Most of those were already malnourished and living hand to mouth making COVID-19 the tipping point between ‘regular life’ and survival.
This scenario is even more acute when we intersect geographical location with other social markers such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and age. For instance, the East and North Zones of Rio de Janeiro, one of the southern cities worse affected by COVID-19, are most vulnerable to the virus as water supplies to households are not as common as in other parts of the cities. Most of the people living in those areas are Afrodescendants, most of them single women who are informal workers, making the effects of pandemic highly unequal. Moreover, countries which are rotten with criminal rates of inequality, like Brazil, are likely to witness a wave of bigotry, racism and discriminatory practices as seen elsewhere.
The moment to change the world is right now. As the world slowly emerges from this pandemic, we cannot go back to normal. Just as we did at the end of World War II, we need to radically think of a new reality and a future where everyone thrives, irrespective of how and where they were born. If the responses to COVID-19 are to be effective and not reproduce or perpetuate existing inequalities, it is important that structural causes of inequality such as (neo)colonialism, neoliberalism and patriarchy are considered and addressed. For example, we need to build a debt, tax and a wider financial system that aims for improving human rights and equality of outcomes for all rather than one that is fixated on economic growth alone. We need to challenge the asymmetry between the global north and the global south by building a new economy that is feminist and explicitly aims for a post-colonial, post-patriarchal and post-neoliberal world.
Dr. Marianna Leite works on the development of holistic approaches to gender and intersecting inequalities that ensure equality of outcomes and rights for all. She is a specialist on gender and development and an international human rights lawyer.
Photo: Cristo Redentor, Rio de Janerio, Brazil, by alobos life/Flickr