Op-Ed: Coronavirus will hit emerging markets with devastating force

Migrant workers head to their homes on the third day of the national lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to curb the spread of Coronavirus COVID-19 , at Anand Vihar bus terminal, on March 27, 2020 in New Delhi, India.

Raj K Raj | Hindustan Times via Getty Images

With apologies to the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky, the world should follow the (paraphrased) advice given to him by his father in tackling the global pandemic of COVID-19: “Skate to where the pathogen is going, and not to where it has been.”

In short, developed countries – even as they act to save themselves – must shift far greater public health and economic attention to fragile states and emerging markets, where the hit from the virus is likely to be far more devastating, destabilizing, and enduring.

It’s for that reason that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund this past Wednesday urged bilateral creditors to suspend debt payments and provide immediate debt relief to the world’s poorest countries – making up a quarter of the world’s population and two-thirds of those living in extreme poverty.

If world leaders don’t act in greater unity soon — and this week’s virtual meeting of G20 leaders wasn’t encouraging in that respect — the world could find COVID19’s worst impacts in swarming slums, crowded refugee camps, unresolved conflict zones, and even among some of the largest emerging market economies, like Brazil, South Africa, and India.

It’s no longer a question of if this could happen but rather of when and how bad it could get. The great hope is that fragile states and emerging markets may get some relief from their young populations and hot weather. However, many of their young have a host of underlying medical conditions. And it’s not clear yet whether COVID19 will prove to be a seasonal matter.

“The global outbreak,” says Crisis Group in a far-reaching report this week, “has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems. Its implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict if, as seems likely, the disease disrupts humanitarian aid flows, limits peace operations and postpones or distracts conflict parties from nascent as well as ongoing efforts at diplomacy.”

It’s no longer a question of if this could happen but rather of when and how bad it could get.

Think Afghanistan, where infections coming across the border from Iran are colliding against nascent peace efforts with the Taliban. Think Libya, where the UN-backed government has pledged $350 million to respond to the disease, but without any clarity of how it could be spent effectively.

Consider Venezuela, where the conflict between the government and opposition already has hollowed out health services, and where the United States this week charged Nicolás Maduro with narco-trafficking crimes – making any relief more difficult. Or visit Gaza, where the health care system – weakened through years of blockade – couldn’t serve the high-density population even before COVID—19 began to settle in.

Crisis Group warns particularly about the dangers facing areas of active conflict, such as northwestern Syria and Yemen. Violence already impeded efforts to deal with a polio outbreak in Syria in 2013-2014 and in countering cholera in Yemen from 2016 to today.

“UN officials have now raised the alarm about COVID-19 infecting the population of Idlib (in Syria),” says Crisis Group, “where a Russian-backed offensive by government forces has systematically target hospitals and other medical facilities and led to the displacement of over one million people in the last six months alone.”

There’s understandable urgency aimed at reversing coronavirus’ continued spread in Europe and the United States, which this week became the world champion in the number of confirmed cases (if Chinese statistics can be believed— a Bloomberg report on funereal urns raises some doubts about that).

However, the greater danger is that of developed economies being so focused internally that they take their eyes off a potential disaster-in-the-marking among fragile states and emerging markets.

Ultimately, developed countries will reduce their fatalities, douse the pathogen and rebuild their economies. After all, they can depend on established public health systems, liquid financial institutions and comparably stable political leadership.

Deeper and longer-lasting

The damage to fragile states and emerging markets is likely to be deeper, longer-lasting, and be accompanied by political instability or even outbreaks of violence.  Economic disaster in these parts of the world are more likely to result in political and social disorder.

Yet instead of even the healthiest emerging markets enjoying support at this challenging moment, disinvestment has spread faster than the pandemic itself. Investors want the safer havens like U.S. government bonds, gold, or cash. 

The Institute of International Finance reported that over the past two months a net $70 billion has left a group of two dozen leading emerging markets, including Brazil, China, India, and South Africa. That’s in stark contrast to inflows into those same economies of $79 billion last year.

“That shift has reignited fears that some countries could be sliding toward insolvency and default – especially Argentina, Turkey and South Africa,” wrote New York Times reporters in their own survey of how the pandemic could hit the world’s most vulnerable countries.

The spread has been fast in India this week, which with its 1.3 billion people is one of the most vulnerable countries on earth. “The country already has the largest cohort of people in the world living with respiratory disease,” writes Vidya Krishnan in Foreign Affairs. “Such conditions make this densely populated country the perfect fodder for a virus that attacks the lungs of its victims.”

The Atlantic Council’s Bronwyn Bruton reports that Africa will profit from previous experience dealing with the Ebola crisis. Many nations have acted rapidly to institute temperature checks, cancel international flights and impose isolation measures.

 That said, Bruton writes, “more than 70 percent of African urbanites – approximately 200 million people – reside in crowded city slums, with limited access to plumbing or electricity. In those environments, social distancing may be effectively impossible.”

South Africa, one of the continent’s richer countries and the one most-watched by international investors as a bell-weather, has fewer than 1,000 intensive care unit beds for a population of 56 million.

“Extraordinary action is required if we are to prevent a human catastrophe of enormous proportions to our country,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday.  He announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to be enforced by the military.

On reflection, the overused Gretzky aphorism atop this column minimizes the danger of ignoring that advice regarding COVID-19. The cost of failing to act more decisively and proactively could be measured in hundreds of thousands of lives and in national futures.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

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