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Traders sell food at a busy market in Kampala, Uganda on March 26, 2020. COVID-19 could devastate impoverished communities in Africa and contribute to a second wave of the global pandemic, which is why Canada must not adopt a ‘Canada First’ response. (AP Photo/Ronald Kabuubi)

Canada must act globally in response to the coronavirus

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Canada, our attention also needs to turn to the rest of the world to help block the devastating health and economic impacts of the virus in countries with weak public health systems and no social safety nets.

Canada has already pledged $159.5 million to the United Nations COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan to support a global medical response to the pandemic.

But the UN is also calling for a US$2.5 trillion rescue package to support countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that will be devastated in ways that many Canadians can’t even imagine.

At its virtual meeting on April 15, G20 finance officials agreed to suspend debt payments by the world’s poorest countries, sparking a similar commitment from many private lenders. In total, the deal will free up an estimated US$20 billion for developing countries to invest in fighting COVID-19 in 2020.

The G20 leaders and their guests are seen here in Osaka, Japan in June 2019. Their meeting April 15 was virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

But much more is still needed. Africa alone may require more than US$150 billion. Many advocacy organizations are calling for the outright cancellation of debt payments by the world’s poorest countries — which exceed spending on health care in 64 countries.

Spending more money on Canada’s international response to COVID-19 will be a hard sell to many Canadians. Online responses to the news stories about Canada’s international response include calls for a “Canada First” approach to ensure that the health care and financial needs of Canadians are met before sending money, medical supplies and personal protective equipment outside the country.

With the federal deficit projected to exceed $184 billion, many voters and MPs may feel that we can’t afford to increase international assistance as well.

These demands to put Canada first will be hard for federal leaders to resist. However, failure to at least slow down the global spread of COVID-19 will not only result in the deaths and increased poverty of hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the world, but may also kill more Canadians as well.

What’s wrong with putting Canada first?

Canada is still confronting the first wave of COVID-19, which makes the Canada first logic tempting. Get the virus under control at home first, and then, maybe, start thinking about how to help the rest of the world.

But there are two major flaws with this approach. First, it’s immoral to value the humanity of Canadians over that of people outside our borders. Second, it undermines the health security of Canadians by allowing the virus to spread further globally and then return to Canada in a second wave, as many health experts are warning.

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has repeatedly emphasized: “The world is only as strong as the weakest health system.” The greater the global spread of the virus, the greater the threat to Canadians.

Read more: African countries are behind on progress towards poverty reduction goals

COVID-19 will impact people in developing countries on a scale beyond the worst fears of most Canadians. Many countries have neither functioning public health care systems nor the social safety nets that enable people to stay home from work.

A report from Oxfam points out that for hundreds of millions of people, social distancing and self-isolation are not options. Almost two billion people live on less than US$3.20 per day and scrape by on day-to-day work in the informal economy. If they don’t go out to work every day, their families don’t eat.

A now-unemployed taxi driver in Nairobi, Kenya, told Oxfam: “This virus will starve us before it makes us sick.”

Women wearing face masks walk by the Yaba Mainland hospital, where an Italian citizen — the country’s first case of the COVID-19 virus — was being treated, in Lagos, Nigeria, in February 2020. It was the first confirmed appearance of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Many governments have implemented harsh penalties to force their citizens to stay at home. But overcrowding and lack of access to running water will make it almost impossible to prevent the spread of the virus in refugee camps and in places like Kampala, Uganda, where over 70 per cent of households live in a single room and only 20 per cent have piped water.

No medical system to help them

For many people who contract COVID-19, there will be no functioning medical system to help them. Ventilators are almost non-existent in much of sub-Saharan Africa. According to Time magazine, Sudan has 80, Zimbabwe has less than 20 and Central African Republic has three.

To help prevent COVID-19 from devastating the developing world, the UN is calling for a $2.5 trillion rescue package to support public health systems and provide financial resources to make it possible for people to stay at home.

Canada’s commitment of $159.5 million to the UN Humanitarian Response fund is an important start, but still represents less than 0.2 per cent of the $107 billion the federal government has committed to domestic responses to COVID-19.

The commitment by the G20 to suspend debt payments in 2020 for the world’s poorest countries is an important step, but Canada and other rich countries will need to commit even more to global efforts to confront COVID-19, especially after President Donald Trump announced that the United States plans to withdraw funding to the World Health Organization — a decision criticized around the world, including by the head of the American Medical Association.

Canadians learned what it feels like to be cut off by other countries that put their own citizens first when Trump attempted to block the export of N95 masks.

The COVID-19 pandemic demands that Canada and other rich countries do all that they can to slow the global spread of the virus — for the health security of people around the world, and for Canadians too.

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