There is a rumor in town that since cases in Pakistan are not as high as the developed world, a trend that can be seen across several developing and poor countries, perhaps the developing world is shielded from the spread of COVID-19. Reasons cited range from reasonable to doubtful to absolutely insane. Meanwhile, international organizations clearly disagree. In a presser, the UNDP warns: “The growing COVID-19 crisis threatens to disproportionately hit developing countries, not only as a health crisis in the short term but as a devastating social and economic crisis over the months and years to come”.
Why do developing economies think they are faring better? Several reasons. One study finds that there is a correlation between COVID-19 cases and countries that have national programs combatting tuberculosis through the Bacillusalmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine. This study in its preliminary stages and the vaccine is being tested but one must also note that most developing countries with BCG vaccination programs are also selectively testing and can in fact, say with little certainty whether cases are low because they have not been tested, or because of the program. It would be imprudent to attach any optimism to this—until further investigation and research. In fact, as discussed earlier in this space, the low positive cases in Pakistan are reflective of selective symptomatic testing, against the strategy used by developed economies to aggressively and randomly test. In fact, “should Pakistan increase the daily testing capacity by four times from the current 5000 a day […] Pakistan could be looking at 60,000 plus positive cases in the next 40 days” (read more: “Covid: Bracing for the peak”, April 17, 2020).
Second reason is the age factor. Towards the start, it seemed the virus was affecting and targeting older people more. Since older people have lower immunity and typically suffer from pre-existing conditions—many with immunocompromised systems—the virus was more likely to ravage them. Developing countries—including Pakistan have a younger population which would help the country stave off the spread. Numbers however show a dramatically different picture. Nearly 33 percent of the total cases in Pakistan are for age group between 30 and 50. In fact, 25 percent of total cases are for people aged under 30. Cumulatively, 73 percent of all cases were for people under 60. This basically shows that Pakistan cannot bank on age alone. It is also worth noting that younger population tend to be more productive part of the economy and are less likely to stay at home during smart lockdowns. Another factor is that developing countries have higher rural population who typically live a simpler and distant life working in fields and farms. This can be a saving grace in part, though once again, it cannot be relied on given how fast urbanization is growing in these parts of the world.
The fact is, poorer economies have to be doubly careful because their medical and health systems are fragile, underfunded and at capacity, with a higher likelihood of getting overwhelmed and collapsing under the pressure. Urban centers are overpopulated and poorly planned, more people living in congested quarters unable to socially distance for too long. Running water is not available and use of soap is also low. One can also not dispute with the existing health of the people living in developing countries. Malnourishment (22% of Pakistani population), stunting (45% of children under 5) and wasting in children, and poor water and waste disposal systems already make these populations more vulnerable.
There is a plethora of rumors and misinformation being spread (quite like coronavirus itself) on social media platforms and text-messaging services like WhatsApp. The state needs to get ahead of this problem and improve COVID-19 messaging to the masses. The false sense of security that many of these rumors are bringing to the people could derail the government’s plans to successfully implement intermittent smart lockdowns and ultimately, will have devastating effects for the country.