The Amazon, snaking across Brazil, is among the world’s largest rivers. Roughly halfway between the borders of Columbia and Peru is the city of Manaus, one of the most tragic victims of COVID-19 in the developing world.
Tyler Hicks, a New York Times photographer, spent weeks vividly reflecting the sad plight of Manaus, and many municipalities along the shores of the 4,000-mile-long waterway. An essay accompanying his work of art, written by Julie Turkewitz and Manuela Andreoni, notes that at the peak of the disease outbreak, 100 people a day were dying in Manaus.
“Indigenous people,” they write, “have been roughly six times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as white people, according to a Brazilian study, and are dying in far-flung river villages untouched by electricity.”
Manaus, a city of 2.2 million people, “is now an industrial powerhouse, a major producer motorcycles, with many foreign businesses,” according to the essay. “It is intimately connected with the rest of the world — its international airport sees about a quarter of a million passengers each month”.
The city’s first documented case on March 13,” according to the Times essay, came from England. The patient had mild symptoms and quarantined at home, in a wealthier part of town, according to city officials. Soon, though the virus seemed to be everywhere.
“We didn’t have any more hospital beds — or even armchairs said a doctor describing days when his public hospital in Manaus was completely full. People never stopped coming.” More than 84,000 Brazilians have perished so far, the world’s second-highest casualty toll after the United States.
THE TRAGEDY IN YEMEN
An essay by health care specialist Mun-Keat Lool of the British Medical Journal, describes the impact of COVID-19 on civil war-torn Yemen, now in its sixth year. The mortality rate there is 27 percent, with nearly 500 deaths, one of the highest, percentage-wise, in the world.
Nearly a fifth of Yemen’s 33 districts have no doctors, and many of those who remain have been unpaid for nearly two years. The Center for Global Health at the University of Illinois reports that “the ongoing conflict means that many COVID-19 cases are untraceable… researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine speculate that as many as 11 million Yemenis — more than a third of its population— could be affected.”
AFRICA: A WAKEUP CALL
Scant attention has been focused in the U.S. press on coronavirus in developing countries, concerned as we are about the pandemic here. But in a landmark article by Dr. Jonathan Fielding in The Hill, the grim truth is unveiled. As he sees it in a report May 31: “Covid-19’s impact in countries with limited medical resources could be huge.
“It has been reported,” he adds, “that Uganda has a single intensive care bed per 100,000 people, compared with 34.7 in the U. S. South Sudan has 24 intensive care units and just four ventilators in the whole country.” These are huge disparities, and with the pandemic well past six months, urgent attention is needed.
SPAIN AS AN EXAMPLE?
A report from Madrid by the Washington Post’s Pamela Rolfe July 26 describes Spain’s approach. It’s headlined “Restrictions Return in Spain as Cases Surge Again.” Sharply contrasting photos accompanying Ms. Rolfe’s report tell the story: on the left, a photo of Spain’s health minister Salvador Illa, King Felipe VI, and Queen Letizia — all wearing masks as they visit a monastery in northeastern Spain, and on the left, a tightly packed Barcelona beach just a few days ago.
Health Minister Illa described the new restrictions issued after his country reported 224 outbreaks and 3,500 new cases on July 26. “We have to call on citizens to not be afraid of the virus, but not to lose respect for it either,” Mr. Illa said.
A PUBLIC DIPLOMACY CHALLENGE
The health minister’s admonition sounds like wise advice for public diplomacy practitioners. Strategies for reaching both prosperous and poor societies will vary in the still uncertain months (and seasons) ahead. It’s clear so far that information is scant in much of the West about the plight of those suffering in Africa and much of the developing world and even in some recovering countries like Spain.
Future setbacks against the perilous pandemic are likely to be a feature of gradual recovery from the most dangerous disease of our generation. It will be complex, especially in the world’s poorer countries and occasionally in fits and re-starts in even relatively developed countries such as Spain. Enter, a variety of information approaches to a world of varying needs.
“Looking ahead,” says Dr. Jonathan Fielding of UCLA, “news of promising vaccines in development means that we are likely to see one or more chosen for manufacture in a speeded-up timeline. But the time required to produce large numbers of doses will initially yield a constrained supply.”
He concludes: “History teaches us that low resource countries are unlikely to be first in line to receive the vaccine. This can only deepen the health and economic divisions that represent social injustice.”
A formidable challenge, indeed. Carefully-crafted public diplomacy campaigns tailored to very diverse audiences in wealthy and poor countries can make all the difference in the coming seasons and years ahead.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More