COVID-19: Some Thoughts on the Developing World

As this is my first President’s post, hopefully of many, since Mia and I were elected as co-Presidents for next term, I had planned to do a bit of an introduction and an overview of our plans for OxSID over the coming months. But with the  pandemic rapidly entering every aspect of day-to-day life and the committee’s plans for Oxford’s first ever e-Trinity still in draft, I felt an urge to write something more topical. All things considered, I think we can reasonably save introductions and our ideas for OxSID’s e-Trinity for next time. 

So, there has been an overwhelming amount of talk and concern lately, and rightly so, about the silent enemy that is only just beginning to tear through the UK and countless other countries. Even for the few of us without friends or family at immediate risk there are countless considerations: the uncertainty surrounding our studies, the mental health impact of spending so long separated from those university friends that have inevitably become family, and perhaps even the prospect of months spent in a confined space with our—much-loved but often stifling—real family. Although perhaps not in equal measure, all of these represent valid causes for concern in their own right. And of course for the many of us that do have a small number of loved ones for whom this virus represents a very real threat, the current situation is nothing short of terrifying.

That said, I suppose amongst all of this the thing that has struck me most is that, for a significant proportion of the world’s population, the fear and the stress that so many of us are only experiencing now is part and parcel of day-to-day life. With the entire population now exposed to a simple but potentially deadly infection we face a new reality that has been far removed from the Western world for almost a hundred years, a reality in which even early old age or the slightest underlying medical condition can present a very real threat to life. I think of the unnecessary years lost. I wonder how many families will lose a 75-year old grandparent ten or fifteen years before their time, perhaps more even, before COVID-19 loses steam. How many families will lose a parent whose cancer treatment had been going well, or a sibling whose cystic fibrosis had been under control? But then I remember that the average Cameroonian dies at 59, and the average Somalian at 53. I remember also that, on average, almost 70% of Sub-Saharan Africans that get cancer can expect to die as a result, this in world where the UK recently celebrated pushing our own cancer death rate below 50%. The fact of the matter is that, for the most part, COVID-19 is killing people who, were they born in many other parts of the world, would not be alive today. 

Yet, this harsh reality will mean nothing, and would certainly be of no consolation to me nor to anyone else were this disease to take the life of a loved one. 1% may seem a small figure—many have scoffed at it—but it must feel like 100% when the victim is your grandmother, mother or brother. And that is a reality that many across the world faced long before COVID-19 escaped Wuhan. So far the spread of the disease to the African continent has been slow, but it will arrive, and when it does arrive you can imagine that the struggle ahead of the NHS will pale in comparison with the battle that awaits societies where our new public health crisis was in many ways already the default position. The cost to life will be even higher and 1% might well become a figure to be envied. We’re all scared about what the next few months will entail, but the reality is that it will pass, and we are privileged to be living in a country where we have significant resources, even if not enough. 

Once the pandemic does pass, I just hope that we will remember what this fear felt like, before we return to the comfort of our Western normality, and that we realise that what for us was a terrifying three months, six months, or even a year, is for many millions a lifelong experience. Not everyone can or will have their eyes opened to the cheapness of life in much the world by volunteering in Haiti or in Zambia, and accusations of white saviourism, rightly or wrongly, often land at the feet of those that do. Having arrived right on our doorsteps, COVID-19 might just be the reality check that many of us needed, made all the more real by the fact that, even with that in mind, none of us would have wanted it. 

By Louis Kill-Brown, OxSID Co-President for TT20