Impacts of Coronavirus on Developing Countries

di Roberta Croce - 30 Aprile 2020

  from Dublin, Ireland

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00096

Developed countries, the members of the OECD, are struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus. In the developing countries the coronavirus crisis has not reached epic proportions yet, but the cracks caused by existing inequalities have already been accentuated.

Health Care System

In the earliest stage of the epidemic   (, 2020) –the health care system was the first sector to be hit. There were not enough medical supplies for all the doctors and nurses and a shortage of beds in hospitals and medical supplies was on the surge. In this context, the capacity of hospitals was under pressure and intensive care places were overcrowded (Malley and Malley, 2020).

This dramatic scenario raises serious concerns over the capacity for those developing countries whose health system is evidently worse off to cope with the pandemic, where people constantly die of illnesses that the developed world has eradicated, such as malaria, tuberculosis and yellow fever. For instance, the United States has 33 Intensive Care Units (ICU) beds for 100,000 people while India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have 2 ICU beds for the same population (Malley and Malley, 2020). In Sub-Saharan Africa the situation is much harsher: Zambia has 0.6 ICU, Gambia 0.4 and Uganda 0.1 for 100,000 people (Malley and Malley, 2020).

We can easily imagine what the consequences of the outbreak of coronavirus could be in countries where the healthcare system is seriously underdeveloped. The necessary and basic therapy cannot be provided because hospitals do not have adequate medical resources, such as protective facemasks, gloves and ventilators, nor have the funds to buy more. The shocking, but not unlikely, consequences could entail a higher death rate in those countries not equipped to manage an unprecedented contagious virus than in countries that have better medical capacity.


Risk Factors

People suffering from prior illnesses such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases and hypertension as well as the elderly seem to be those who suffer the worst consequences of COVID-19 (Roberts, 2020). Those medical characteristics are mostly associated  with developing countries, as they are the ones mostly characterised, on average, by younger populations. As such, one could infer that developing countries might be less hit by the virus, therefore, they should be less hit from the coronavirus epidemic. However, in developing countries, many people still suffer from obesity and cardiovascular diseases (Malley and Malley, 2020). In addition, the latter constantly face other health issues and environmental conditions that undermine their resilience to the virus (Malley and Malley, 2020).

Moreover, typical major diseases that increase the risk of the virus are chronic malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and poor air quality. Thus, populations in developing countries are equally at risk of contracting the virus and suffer from disastrous health complications.


Health and Hygiene

treatment for the new Covid-19  does not exist yet, hence, the best ways to be protected from the contraction of the virus is to wash hands with soap and to sanitize everything we touch. This is a simple and quite normal procedure. Nevertheless, in most of the developing countries access to water is a luxury (Noko, 2020). The lack of adequate infrastructure is a major issue as a high number of households do not have access to water in their properties and, most of the times, have to get water from communal water sources and wells. In such occasions, social distancing is hard to respect, as usually women have the task to get water and often, they bring their children with them.

In developing countries, sanitation is a problem as basic hygiene products are not easily accessible to the   are not appropriately supplied and people often cannot afford alcohol-based hand sanitizer. For this reason, in Mandalay, the second biggest city of Myanmar, university chemistry students were recruited to prepare antiviral hand wash in their lab for the use of the population (Salopek, 2020).


Isolation and Social Distancing

Whilst quarantining to limit the implications of the virus has become the norm in developed countries, in most developing countries families are numerous and live in small crowded homes or informal settlements, where, if infected, it would be hard to keep a member of the family isolated from others. For instance, in Harare, Zimbabwe, 800,000 people are estimated to live in less than 5 square kilometers (Noko, 2020). In high-density populations, as India or Nigeria, social distancing is almost impossible because people are used to live in crowded common spaces like markets and streets, where most of the informal economy takes place.

Such living conditions are likely to magnify and protract the infection throught space and time, and avoiding the spread becomes increasingly harder. In places where people live (or survive) on a week-to-week basis or, in extreme cases, on a meal-to-meal basis, policies obliging the population to stay at home may lead people to die out of hunger, even before COVID-19 (Salopek, 2020).

The virus-spreading scenario worsens for refugee camps, where the living conditions are already precarious, isolation is almost impossible (Oxfam, 2020). Usually, food and medical supplies are slow and often not sufficient to meet the needs of the camp population. Oxfam reports that, on average, refugee camps have only one doctor every 10,000 people (Oxfam, 2020). The international community should not underestimate those “lands of no one” because everyone should have access to proper health care in order to diminish the spread of novel coronavirus.


Food security

The coronavirus pandemic has hit people who rely on the   the most. Quarantine measures have restricted the access to food to many and decreased food production as well (FAO, 2020). Developing countries, already suffering from high rates of malnutrition are witnessing poorer basic food delivery exacerbated by COVID-19. Moreover, movement restrictions simultaneously threaten to disrupt the entire food supply chain – production, processing, packaging, transportation, marketing and consumption (FAO, 2020). Also livestock movements have been halted, a fundamental activity for pastoralist survival (FAO, 2020). As a consequence, developing countries are likely to face increased food shortages and higher food prices for those who are already extremely vulnerable.

According to the latest report released by the World Food Programme (WFP), the countries that are most at risk are those thorn by war, violence and social unrest as   (WFP, 2020). Among those, we find Syria, Yemen, Haiti, Mali, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, South Sudan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya and Afghanistan. Within the context of the pandemic, those countries will face the harshest consequences if they do not receive necessary humanitarian aid.


Closing Borders in Africa

After reporting just one or few cases of the novel coronavirus, several African countries have officially closed their borders to avoid further spared. However, borders in Africa often exist only in theory as they were arbitrarily drawn during colonial age but for many communities who live among those borders they do not exist (Noko, 2020). How can border closure policies be implemented? How can local authorities ensure the respect of those rules?



According to a recent analysis of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the world economy could shrink up by up to   per cent in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (2020). The consequences on the economy could be even harder if restrictions are extended without adequate fiscal responses (UN DESA, 2020).

Spillover on Developing Countries. Economic restrictions on developed countries will spill-over to developing countries via trade and investment. The two major buyers of imported goods, the United States and Europe, have significantly reduced imports from developing countries due to a slow down of the economic activity within their countries. Developing countries which rely on exports of consumer goods, such as garments (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia), copper (Chile, Peru, Democratic Republic of Congo) and zinc (Brazil, India) to name a few, will see their economy collapse (UN News, 2020; Goodman et al, 2020).   is another sector which will see high levels of job losses and will be a major shortfall for many small islands developing states such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Micronesia (UN News, 2020). Those sectors in developing countries mainly employ low skilled labor force, the substantial part of their populations as well as the most vulnerable.

Halt of food production. As mentioned above, lockdown measures are having disastrous impacts on the economy of developing countries. The 21-day lockdown in India threatens wheat production and processing as there is no one who can harvest it (Salopek, 2020). In Africa the majority of GDP comes from the informal economy and agriculture, hence, people are not able to work from home and are at risk of losing their jobs or they are working illegally, not helping the prevention, and creating public disorders.



As a result of economic losses, developing countries with weaker health systems are very likely to drown in debt (World Economic Forum, 2020). Massive outflows of investment from developing countries are characterizing this period as most developed countries are taking back previous investment to tackle the pandemic at home (Rabouin, 2020). However, most of the developing countries heavily rely on FDI. Therefore, they will experience their local currencies to diminish which will force people to pay more for imported goods like food and fuel (Malley and Malley, 2020). Medical and economic costs of the pandemic could incentivize distressed governments to default on their debt, making populations even more vulnerable (Rabouin, 2020).



Governments should try to do their best to ensure social distancing, testing and shifting budget priorities towards public health – but such measures are hard to implement. Much of the response should come from   However, even richer countries are becoming more indebted to manage the crisis at home and are less likely to employ budget money for humanitarian aid. The UN launched a   (ABC News, 2020)

It is important to stress that a pandemic does not know borders and closing boundaries will never be completely successful in containing the virus. Public health becomes a matter of global health and helping others is not a simple matter of altruism but an urgent necessity (Malley and Malley, 2020). José María Vera, the Interim Executive Director at Oxfam International, called for a massive international aid program to tackle the virus impact on developing countries because “it is clearer than ever that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe” (WEF, 2020).



It has been shown what are and could be the impacts on developing countries if the new coronavirus hits them similarly to how it did to developed nations, and the consequences will be much harsher. Wealthier countries and international organizations have the duty to provide assistance to developing countries by not dropping the aid programs in place. On the contrary, aid programs should continue as they are an essential tool for the functioning of many developing countries, especially in the health sector.

Joseph Stiglitz advocates for the full use of the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a form of “global money”. this is based on the idea that, during crisis all countries will obviously want to protect their citizens and their economies, the international community should have a tool for assisting the neediest countries without touching national budgets (Stiglitz, 2020). He further suggest that it would be even better if advanced economies donated or lent (on concessionary terms) their SDRs toa trust fund dedicated to helping poorer countries (Stiglitz, 2020). Furthermore, in this time of global crisis, it is fundamental that creditor countries announce to temporarily suspend repayment of debts, as many developing countries simply do not have the necessary resources to cope with the virus and to repay their debts (Stiglitz, 2020).

Solidarity should itself be a a motivation to support a multilateral response, but in this case, it is also a matter of self-interest. As long as the virus is present globally, it will pose a threat everywhere. Hopefully, the lesson humans will learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is that the globalized and fast lifestyle we created and are used to is neither sustainable nor equitable, and has left many behind.


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Autore dell’articolo*: Roberta Croceaddetta alla comunicazione del think tank Trinità dei Monti. Studentessa di Master of Public  Administration in Development Practice e Dottoressa in Politics, Philosophy and Economics all’Università LUISS Guido Carli di Roma. 


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