Same Virus. Different Worlds.

By Andrew Barnes, Head of Communications, Practical Action On 03.04.2020 Coronavirus

For me it’s very strange to be contributing to crisis response measures in developing countries while simultaneously living through the same crisis in the UK. Definitely a first in my more than 25 years in international development.

But while the virus physically attacks everyone in the same way in every country, the very different lives we lead in different parts of the world means that we probably need different responses to combat it.

Many developing countries are imposing ‘lockdown’ measures similar to those implemented in Europe and more developed nations in Asia. While this is bold and timely, the unintended consequences may well be devastating for their poorest communities.

Practical Action’s founder, Fritz Schumacher, began the organisation based on the principle that solutions that work in developed nations are often not appropriate for poor communities in less developed nations, where the machinery of life works very differently. This has never been more true than in the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Always wash your hands posterIn Europe, families have been told to stay home and only venture out for necessary food and supplies. Meanwhile, after some initial stresses, the entire food supply chain is still functioning, with supermarket workers and delivery drivers treated as key workers. In developing countries, the food supply chain does not work independently from the rest of society.

I’m hearing from my colleagues in Nepal that the lockdown means no more trips to markets – for buyers or sellers. Dairy farmers cannot sell their milk and have been throwing it away. Poultry farmers have not been able to buy grain for their chicks and have been forced to cull them.

The food supply chain in many places is at breaking point, and it’s not just affecting the immediate supply of food, but future supply, too. Farmers in Africa and Asia are currently preparing to sow crops for harvest later this year. There is a real concern that supplies of seeds will not reach smallholders at the time they need them most.

Lockdowns threaten not only the supply of food, but also people’s ability to earn money to buy it. While there are problems in the execution, here in the UK the Government is trying to at least partially ensure incomes and provide welfare payments during the lockdown.

For day labourers in towns and cities in developing nations, no work today means no pay today and no food today for their families. This is what prompted the mass exodus of migrant workers from cities in India, reported on last week.

Providing accurate information on the coronavirus threat to low income rural and urban communities also presents very different challenges. Incomplete or inaccurate information breeds fear, panic and poor choices.

We’re seeing hastily compiled written information being provided only in official languages. Remote communities receive poorly translated versions in native languages, if at all. And people who cannot read get second-hand and often incorrect interpretations of this vital guidance, especially on handwashing. Information needs to be disseminated in more appropriate ways, such as murals or pictograms, local language radio and podcasts.

At Practical Action we are working to a three-part plan to help poor communities prepare for, withstand and recover from the coronavirus crisis. But, and more importantly, we also aim to work with local, regional and national governments to contextualise their response to the pandemic, so that it protects rather than harms the lives of people who already live precarious existences.