The Developing World Could Come Out of the Pandemic Ahead

Thanks to favorable demographics, digitization efforts, and quicker health responses, many countries of the global south are faring better than their wealthy counterparts.

A street vendor wearing a face mask sells cigarettes on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on March 12.
A street vendor wearing a face mask sells cigarettes on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on March 12. Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

The coronavirus could be the great global leveler for this generation.

Although the virus has spread through the entire world, its effects—both on physical and economic health—have been better managed in some developing countries than in their richer counterparts. In the United Kingdom, the official death toll at the beginning of September is 40,000, whereas Bangladesh’s official count stands around 4,000, despite having over twice the U.K.’s population. And while the British economy is expected to contract by around 9 percent in 2020, Bangladesh’s GDP may fall by around 2 percent. At the same time, developing countries may also find the post-pandemic world more hospitable to their continued rise, as the global economy becomes more digitized, more multipolar, and more fluid.

The better performance in parts of the developing world throughout the pandemic comes down mainly to two factors. First, major virus outbreaks hit Europe and the United States relatively early in the spread of the pandemic, which means they had less time to prepare. But the developed world was also complacent in the face of the virus, perhaps because it saw virus outbreaks as a third-world problem.

In 2016, an exercise to test Britain’s ability to cope with a pandemic found gaping holes—including a lack of personal protective equipment and insufficient health care infrastructure—in preparedness. Those holes were never filled, perhaps because Zika, SARS, MERS, and swine flu were all health emergencies that affected poorer countries and spared richer ones. But such complacency means that in the ranking of coronavirus-related deaths per capita around the world, European countries and the United States account for six out of the top 10. Even given the possibility that cases in some developing countries are undercounted, the difference is so large that observers can reliably say that many of those nations must be doing something right that some of their richer counterparts are not. Steven Friedman at the University of Johannesburg, for example, made such an argument in May under the headline “COVID-19 has blown away the myth about ‘First’ and ‘Third’ world competence.” And there is ample evidence that he is right.

Consider the case of Vietnam, which quickly enforced public health measures such as increased health checks, travel restrictions, and extensive quarantines that took European countries months to put in place. Nigeria shut down when there were only 100 reported cases of the virus. Meanwhile, Turkey’s track and trace system for viral spread was already in place and robust, built on decades of experience in tracking measles and other outbreaks. This has allowed Turkey, a country of 85 million people, to limit the official death count to just over 6,000. And many African countries had experience containing an outbreak from the Ebola epidemic of 2014, which surely helped when COVID-19 came knocking.

On paper, meanwhile, Bangladesh, the most crowded large country in the world, should have been among the worst affected by COVID-19. But at time of writing, the country’s official death toll is less than a third that of Texas. It is worth asking whether the official count is low, but even if it is, the real number is still surely below many of the worst-case projections made early in the pandemic. The success depended on intelligent local lockdowns that focused on particular areas at particular times and a swift world-class telemedicine strategy, led from the very top of government.

Beyond the capacity for quick government action, another advantage for some developing countries has been their young populations, since the vast majority of serious cases, and an even vaster majority of deaths, are among the elderly. The median age of the population in Africa is only 19, whereas in Europe it’s 43.

Just as much of the global south has been able to deal with COVID-19’s health effects more effectively, the same is true of the economic fallout.

The United Kingdom recorded a 20 percent contraction in its GDP in the second quarter of this year. Emerging markets and developing economies are predicted to fare far better. This is almost inevitable, as many of them had stronger growth in the period immediately preceding the pandemic to begin with. For example, last year, Bangladesh was the sixth-fastest-growing economy in the world with a growth rate of 7.9 percent. The U.K., by contrast, grew by just 1.4 percent, meaning it was already closer to recession.

Developing economies like Bangladesh are used to big challenges. Workers and industrial sectors may be more adaptive. Laid-off garment workers and shuttered factories quickly pivoted to manufacture of personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields. That was coupled with Bangladesh’s ongoing digitization of its economy through an ambitious program, predating the pandemic, for all government services and significant swaths of economic activity to be conducted entirely online. Thanks to such initiatives, the government had tools already in place for nationwide telemedicine systems and to deliver aid to citizens efficiently. This same infrastructure has allowed a large portion of economic activity—especially education, financial services, and international trade—to continue throughout the pandemic.

Bangladesh is not alone in such initiatives, and the rise of developing countries like it will be hastened by greater acceptance of working from home. If a company is headquartered in London or New York and its employees are working from home, it makes less difference whether that home is 10 miles from the office or 1,000. In turn, the flow of talent and labor, long controlled by the supply of work visas, could change. The line between outsourcing to freelancers and in-house work is becoming blurred and may eventually disappear.

This bodes well for developing countries, which may see their ambitious plans to become developed countries coming to fruition sooner than expected.

Ashfaq Zaman is a co-founder of CNI News and the director of the Dhaka Forum.

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