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“There Aren’t Enough Tests”: As Pandemic Intensifies, Global South Prepares for the Worst

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After devastating China, Europe and the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is now intensifying across the Global South. The United Nations warns the pandemic is poised to destroy fragile economies in poor nations, decimating food security, education and human rights. We speak with Yanis Ben Amor, assistant professor of global health and microbiological sciences at Columbia University and executive director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, our coronavirus special every day right now as we broadcast from the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, right here in New York City. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We’re going to end the hour by continuing to look at the growing threat the pandemic poses to the Global South. Monday, the United Nations warned the pandemic is poised to devastate fragile economies in poorer nations, estimating more than $220 billion of income will be lost as the virus spreads — a blow that could decimate food security, education and human rights. Billions of people from Africa to Latin America to South Asia and elsewhere work in the informal economy, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the global economic crisis that COVID-19 has sparked. The virus is also expected to overwhelm weak health systems and worsen the already stark divide between rich and poor.

To talk more about this, we go to Yanis Ben Amor, assistant professor of global health and microbiological sciences at Columbia University, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute.

If you could give us a global picture, Professor, of what we’re seeing right now in the Global South? At this point, the numbers do not compare to what we’re seeing, for example, in the United States, the epicenter. Now, here the testing is terrible, the access to testing, and there is that divide between rich and poor. But in the Global South, are we not seeing numbers because of almost complete lack of access to tests, or are there other reasons?

YANIS BEN AMOR: First of all, good morning, and thank you for having me on your show.

So, I would say that there’s two reasons why there seems to be a delay in what’s happening in Africa. Apologies for the sound; I am taking the call from home. So, first of all, it seems that the coronavirus pandemic has hit the world in successive waves. Obviously, it started in Wuhan, China. And it is possible that Chinese Americans, Chinese Italians, Chinese French who were in China for the New Year or the Chinese New Year ended up coming back with the infection, or Americans, French, Italians, Spaniards who were in China for the New Year ended up bringing the infection back into Europe, into America, and starting a second wave. We are now seeing a third wave hitting Africa and India, possibly because of European tourism or American tourism into India and into Africa. In fact, the first case in Nigeria was linked to an Italian tourist. So, I would say that one of the reasons why there is — there seem to be less cases in Africa and in India is because of a delay. In fact, Italy was behind China. We in the United States are considered to be 10 days behind Europe. And Africa may be 10 to 15 days behind us.

But what you mentioned is also true. We are not testing enough people in the United States. They are not testing enough people in Europe. It is impossible to imagine that the numbers that are reported by WHO every day are an accurate depiction of what’s actually going on. At the beginning of the crisis, let’s say a month ago, the Africa CDC said that only four out of the 54 countries in Africa would be able to diagnose coronavirus. Now we’re in a much better situation. Forty-six out of the 54 countries have the equipment to test. But do they have the tests? They don’t. And I am talking to colleagues across Africa, whether it’s in Nairobi or in Accra or in Johannesburg, and they’re suffering the same problems that we have in the United States: There aren’t enough tests.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On the other hand, Yanis Ben Amor, you’ve also suggested that because of Ebola, certain countries in Africa may be better prepared to deal with an epidemic or, indeed, a pandemic like COVID-19. Could you talk about that?

YANIS BEN AMOR: Absolutely. So, I would say that the situation in Africa is still a little bit mysterious as to how it’s going to unfold. And I’m going to explain why there are two positive trends and three negative trends. And no expert can really predict.

So, it seems that the African continent has been preparing for outbreaks, for epidemics, for many years. In 2014, 2015, there was the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, in Guinea and Liberia, and a lot of the African countries, neighboring but also continent-wide, prepared for sentinel systems to make sure that they would be able to detect their first Ebola cases and that they would put in place systems so that whenever they had a case, they would put them in quarantine, and they would do contact tracing, which is, whenever you have a case, you go around and you see any person that has been in contact, and then you also put them in quarantine. This was effectively done with SARS back in 2002 and 2003. That was a lot easier with SARS, because everybody who was infectious was some symptomatic. And that is not the case with this coronavirus, with SAR-CoV-2, because the infectiousness seems to be starting 48 hours to 24 hours before the apparition of symptoms. And in fact, many, many cases are even considered to be asymptomatic, so they are spreading the infection without knowing it. So, the African continent has been preparing for an outbreak. So, in theory, they have the systems in place, but, as I told earlier, they need to have the diagnostic tests. So, they would be able to run the tests, but if the tests are not available, just like in the best hospital in New York City, you are not able to distinguish who has a regular flu, who has a pneumonia, from who has coronavirus.

So, Africa has another interesting advantage. If you look at —

AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 30 seconds, Yanis.

YANIS BEN AMOR: Sorry. So, Africa has a very young population, so it’s very difficult to see how the disease will evolve. The median age in Africa is about 20 years, compared to China, which is about 40, or in Europe, which is about 45. So, we know that the disease affects young people a lot less. The problem — the problems are, there are many other diseases, like HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and they are going to negatively impact.

Social distancing, as was discussed by your previous contributor —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

YANIS BEN AMOR: Social distancing is not going to be possible. It’s going to be possible for the urban rich, but not for the majority of the population.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanis Ben Amor, we thank you so much for being with us, assistant professor of global health and microbiological sciences at Columbia University, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute.

And that does it for our show. These numbers have just come in. We’ve just gotten the record number on unemployment. U.S. unemployment claims have hit 6.6 million, another record high, as layoffs continue amidst the pandemic. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, from New York City. Thanks so much.

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