Covid-19 hits the world's most vulnerable the hardest, and we must protect them

Our shared challenge will be to address the trials faced by poor and vulnerable people

Impoverished Tunisian citizens gather with their identification cards in front of the headquarters of Mnihla delegation in Ariana Governorate outside Tunis on March 30, 2020, to protest against the general confinement and to claim the financial aid promised by the government.  / AFP / FETHI BELAID

The world has reached the grim milestone of its millionth officially recorded case of coronavirus, but global health officials and policymakers are warning that it is still the early stage of a longer, arduous journey. Experts believe that there remains a very large number of undetected cases all over the world, especially in poorer countries and isolated areas. Our shared challenge in the months to come will be to address the trials faced by the world’s poor and vulnerable, as well as to provide assistance to less developed nations, where the virus is likely to wreak havoc.

In Iraq, for instance, where nearly 700 people have tested positive thus far, the World Health Organisation said that cases of coronavirus are expected to rise significantly. Baghdad’s biggest challenges are its crumbling healthcare infrastructure and scarce number of testing kits, compounded by a lack of funds. Although authorities have established a nationwide curfew and restricted travel, many Iraqis have blatantly disregarded these measures. Militia leaders have encouraged reckless behaviour, with populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr initially urging his followers to go about their business as usual and spreading conspiracy theories about coronavirus.

But even in places where such rhetoric is less of an issue, it is difficult to convince the poor, many of whom rely on daily wages to make ends meet, to stop working without providing any compensation. In Tunisia, hundreds of protesters have gathered in working class neighbourhoods to demonstrate against stay-at-home measures. "Never mind coronavirus, we're going to die anyway. Let us work," one bricklayer shouted. "Let me at least bring bread home for my children." Social safety nets are needed to allow working people to afford staying in. Low-income earners, those without savings and those who rely on daily wages face tough times ahead. Stimulus packages are also important to keep the economy afloat and to save millions of jobs.

In times of pandemic, nations can only be as healthy as their most vulnerable people. Coronavirus is especially dangerous for those over the age of 60, patients with underlying medical conditions, and the health workers who care for them day and night. In Spain and Italy, thousands of medical staff have contracted Covid-19. A shortage of personal protective equipment in the US and Europe has made it difficult for doctors and nurses in these places to stay safe.

In times of pandemic, nations can only be as healthy as their most vulnerable people

But staying at home and having access to financial aid and protective gear is sometimes not enough. For victims of domestic abuse, staying in can mean being trapped in a confined space with their aggressors for an indefinite amount of time. This is all the more dangerous as police, charities and hospitals are now overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, with their resources and attention stretched. Women and children trapped in abusive homes must not become the collateral victims of Covid-19. Authorities have to work on identifying those who require help, and offer them alternative shelter away from their aggressors.

Everywhere in the world, Covid-19 has not erased existing problems, such as domestic abuse, poverty and under-resourced healthcare services. On the contrary, it has put additional strain on issues that have not previously been dealt with. To truly keep as many people as possible safe during this pandemic, we must also address these underlying causes.