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Developing countries face disastrous healthcare setbacks, hunger and huge international debt as covid-19’s ‘final wave’

26 January 2021

The International Development Committee (IDC) today warns that a legacy of humanitarian and development reversals and crises could be more catastrophic than the direct impacts of covid-19 in developing countries. The IDC’s latest report comes as the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs is set to appear before IDC members for the first time later today.

The IDC’s inquiry found that routine healthcare in some countries is grinding to a halt; vulnerable economies risked failure under rising levels of national debt; people across the Global South were more in fear of threats of job losses and starvation than the pandemic; and the virus, and its counter-measures, were increasing levels of gender-based violence, child marriages and other challenges to girls access to education.

Limited access to support is compounding the crisis. The UK Government’s recent reduction in official development assistance (ODA) is causing uncertainty for many aid programmes, and existing funding is failing to reach the frontline with maximum speed. The IDC heard that funding funnelled through multilateral organisations suffers from excessive bureaucracy.

Non-Covid related healthcare

Routine immunisation programmes, such as measles, polio and diphtheria, are all stalling, with 70% of countries reporting disruption to routine immunisation. It was also estimated that 11.5 million people were affected by disruptions to anti-retroviral services for HIV/AIDS between April and June last year. It is alarming that progress over recent decades in tackling these healthcare challenges appeared to be unravelling. Tackling covid-19 was diverting funding, exhausting staff, absorbing resources, and scaring off patients with other illnesses from accessing healthcare.

While the IDC commends the Government’s commitment of £764 million to respond to covid-19 and its impact, a global healthcare strategy must be implemented urgently to ensure other healthcare progress is not lost.

Economy and livelihoods

Amid fears of a “looming financial tsunami” for developing countries caused by the pandemic, the IDC argues that debt should be cancelled rather than countries being offered debt relief. As of April last year, the IDC heard that $33 billion was still being paid by struggling governments and if they default on their loans they could be sued.

Irrespective of national debt, the WHO suggests that almost half of the global workforce of 3.3 billion people could lose their jobs. It is having a knock-on effect to families feeding themselves, with the IDC hearing how parents are reducing portion sizes for their families, and in Yemen the IDC heard that 14 million people are unsure where their next meal is coming from.

Agricultural workers are being particularly impacted. With expectations of widespread job losses, coupled with supply chain disruptions, exports are likely to be affected.

Women and girls

The IDC heard how the pandemic is having a gendered impact, leading to a rise in unpaid care work by women and girls, and undoing progress made towards gender equality. Further, girls are more likely to drop out of school permanently to take on caring responsibilities at home. The IDC was concerned to learn that an additional 31 million cases of gender-based violence were projected in 2020 due to the pandemic, with local lockdowns trapping women at home creating a “shadow pandemic”.

Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion MP, said:

“Covid-19 has had a devastating impact in the UK, but the same threats and risks are faced by those in developing countries: many of who are already the world’s poorest, most vulnerable and most likely to be exposed to conflict, violence and displacement.

“Vulnerable communities have been fighting humanitarian injustices for too long – from poor healthcare to gender inequality, malnutrition to dire financial woes – and these have all been getting worse due to the pandemic. More girls than ever are out of school, crippling national debt is diverting funding away from crucial social services, treatment for HIV/AIDS has been disrupted and the interruption of other inoculation programmes is s ticking bomb.

“We must expose this shadow pandemic and recognise that long after coronavirus, the secondary impacts could be worse. The Government needs to show leadership on this and commit to shore up our decades of investment in development.”

Some of the Committee’s recommendations today are:

  • The FCDO should replenish funds used by NGOs to tackle the impact of covid-19, and more direct funding should be provided for local, frontline NGOs and its partner organisations.

Non-covid related healthcare

  • A multi-year, cross-departmental global health strategy is needed urgently to ensure vulnerable communities can access healthcare.
  • As part of a global health strategy, the FCDO should work with developing countries to reduce financial barriers to accessing healthcare for communities, prioritising low-cost approaches to lifesaving treatments, incorporating the feedback of communities.

Economy and food security

  • The Debt Service Suspension Initiative should be extended beyond June 2021 and the Government should encourage private lenders to join the initiative.
  • The Government should consider options for the cancellation of debt and explain its decision on debt relief versus debt cancellation for low-and middle-income countries.
  • The Government should fund long-term, multi-year programmes, designed to foster employment opportunities, with the FCDO working closely with recipient countries, aid partners and local NGOs to identify those activities allocate resources accordingly.
  • The Government’s nutrition commitments, which expired at the end of 2020, must be updated urgently, and funding must be expanded for programmes addressing malnutrition and food insecurity.

Women and girls

  • The FCDO should refresh DFID's Strategic Vision for Gender Equality.
  • The UK's presidency of the G7 and COP 26, and its co-presidency of the Generation Equality Action Coalition, should be used to publish a list of objectives which it will seek to achieve in combatting gender-based violence.
  • The FCDO should publish an assessment of the effectiveness of current UK-funded programmes on the provision of sexual and reproductive health services in developing countries.
  • The FCDO should base future funding decisions upon disaggregated data by gender and age to assess impact.

Government response to ‘Humanitarian crises monitoring: coronavirus in developing countries interim findings’

The Government’s response to the IDC describes the covid-19 pandemic as a devastating crisis of unprecedented complexity and incalculable scale, with research pointing to only 3% of covid-related deaths being recorded in some humanitarian contexts. The Government recognises that in many developing countries the indirect health, economic and humanitarian impacts will outweigh and outlast the direct impacts of the pandemic. The response sets out the details and scale of the various challenges and the UK’s response. Much of the information relates closely to the indirect impacts that are the subject of the second report published today.

Government response: published as, Fifth Special Report of the session 2019-21, HC 1160

Further information

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