Africa: Opinion - Coronavirus: Why the Third Wave Could Be the Deadliest

The usually busy UN Avenue in Nairobi is almost empty as people stay at home to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

As dark as coronavirus crisis seems right now, the fact is it could get much worse

First the virus hit China. Then, it swept across Europe and North America. But the third wave - when it hits poor countries in Africa, Asia and South America - could be the deadliest yet. And without debt relief, the wave could be a tsunami.

Rich countries have been absolutely ravaged by coronavirus - healthy populations, strong economies, and the world's most advanced and well-funded healthcare systems all brought to their knees in a matter of weeks.

Imagine then what will happen when it rips through countries plagued by malnutrition, HIV/AIDs, unemployment and poverty; where 3 billion people can't even wash their hands with soap and water, according to UNICEF.

Several countries in Africa spend more on servicing their debts than on healthcare and education. Countries like Angola and Ghana spend 55% of government revenue repaying debts! We can't expect these governments to stop a pandemic while hemorrhaging all their precious resources.

And they could be just days away from disaster. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, has said: "The next two weeks will decide the fate of the African continent in terms of COVID-19."

It makes absolutely no sense for countries with struggling healthcare systems preparing for an oncoming pandemic to be crippled with unpayable debts right now. What they need is to be able to inject cash into their healthcare systems, and help their people stay at home, so they can stop this virus spreading. Not only is that moral, during a global pandemic, it's effective.

Pakistan and Ethiopia have already called for debt relief, and the World Bank has asked G20 leaders to consider the option so that the world's poorest countries can spend their precious resources on fighting the virus. This is exactly the kind of unexpected catastrophe for which debt relief was designed. Rich countries have a fighting chance but the poorer ones are staring into an abyss if they don't get help now.

And let's not forget that leaders have agreed to this before. In 2005, the G8 cancelled the debt of the world's 18 most heavily indebted countries to the tune of $40 billion. After Ebola, the IMF cancelled $100m in debt for the world's worst-hit places.

Rich countries have thrown everything they've got at this crisis, just to stay afloat. Without debt relief we'll be leaving some of the poorest people in the world to sink. Across the developed world we've seen mortgage and rent payments paused, bailouts being packaged for businesses and corporations, and checks written for individuals who are facing unemployment. These are the essential strategies for every country looking to both curb this virus and stem an economic meltdown.

It may seem like rich countries have enough on their plates already. So many countries are struggling to contain the virus at home, let alone offer help abroad. But this is a global pandemic. Either we beat it together, or we will all lose this fight.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ricken Patel, founder and CEO of Avaaz.

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