• In the world's least developed countries (LDCs), 900 million people are at risk from coronavirus;
  • These countries lack the economic resources and medical infrastructure of their more developed counterparts but can learn lessons from their response and benefit from their support;
  • The global community must help LDCs expand PPE and technology for frontline workers, ensure an uninterrupted supply of essential medicines and equitable access to vaccines and medication.

The ongoing death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in developed countries such as Italy and the US portends a looming disaster in the world’s most impoverished countries.

The public health responses in some of Asia’s most advanced economies offer lessons to other countries bracing for a potentially dramatic increase in cases, in particular South Korea’s swift, coordinated and within-democratic-means response. But most countries do not enjoy South Korea’s wealth and infrastructure. What is to be done in those nearly 50 countries who fall under the UN’s Least-Developed Country (LDC) status, home to nearly 900 million people worldwide. As governments around the world prepare for the worst, what lessons are relevant to those countries that lack the economic resources and medical infrastructure of South Korea?

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Take the case of Nepal (a country with which we are deeply familiar): the government has taken extraordinary and necessary measures to prevent the entry of the virus through its borders. It has closed schools, cancelled events, shut down Mount Everest and largely restricted international travel. These actions are courageous considering the enormous economic costs. They are also notable for being achieved through democratic, non-coercive means.

The world's Least Developed Countries (LDCs) according to the UN
The world's Least Developed Countries (LDCs) according to the UN

Nepal, whose population is approximately 28 million people, likely has fewer than 500 intensive care unit beds in the entire country. Many of its rural hospitals lack even minimal inpatient capacity. Diagnostic testing is available at only a single referral hospital in its capital, Kathmandu. As governments in advanced economies announce large-scale economic assistance and healthcare interventions, we also must not neglect our fundamental responsibility to support the response efforts – in a large-scale, ambitious way – for LDCs.

With that in mind, here are six crucial measures that the global community can implement to support LDCs. As places like Taiwan, China, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong bring their outbreaks until control, they can and must contribute their expertise and resources to support LDCs, particularly in Asia.

1. Early, coordinated social distancing is absolutely essential to risk mitigation

Much of the focus in global COVID-19 pandemic responses right now centres around mass social distancing measures – school, event and business closures, working from home, restrictions on travel and social gatherings. These measures are essential and the global community can support such efforts by sharing data, protocols and ensuring regional cohesion in cross-border policies around migration and trade.

2. Make plans now for the expansion of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing capacity

As international trade and supply chains are decimated, COVID-19 testing and personal protective gear needs to be stockpiled by LDCs right now. They can only do this with extensive financial and technical support from other countries. These donor countries, tragically, are the same ones who have been hard hit by the pandemic. Yet we have to ramp up the manufacturing and distribution of supplies and avoid the perception that we have limited resources to spread amongst all the countries. Even with the ongoing pandemic and the economic crisis, the world has the resources to do this. We have to mobilize like never before.

3. Invest in hospital capacity everywhere

Given the fact that COVID-19 outbreaks disseminate through geographies quickly, targeted, nationalized treatment centres will have minimal impact on severe cases. The epidemiology of respiratory viruses like that causing COVID-19. The global community again must mobilize with training (even if largely virtual), supplies and protocols.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s 2021 Annual Report evaluated the work of its 2019 and 2020 Awardees. It shows that despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation’s community has found new ways to join forces, respond and develop the movement of social innovators.

Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

4. Connect frontline healthcare workers with the technology, PPE, and protocols they need

There is much that can be accomplished by healthcare workers using simple mobile technology to help triage patients and recommend home isolation for those safe to do so. This is essential for focusing scant hospital resources on the sickest patients and avoiding hospital transmission with long queues. Many LDCs like Nepal have themselves pioneered the use of community-based healthcare delivery and promotion activities and can mobilize this infrastructure. They need the right training and technology tools in time to be effective.

5. Ensure uninterrupted supply of essential medicines

As seen with Ebola, there will be disruptions in essential primary care services owing to the COVID-19 pandemic in LDCs. Much can be done to prevent this through working proactively now on supply chains with Ministries of Health around the globe.

6. Ensure early and equitable access to vaccines and medications

While the first wave of response to the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to have biomedical tools available to it, preparations should now be made to ensure eventual equitable access to vaccines and antivirals. For influenza, vaccination and anti-virals are almost entirely absent in LDCs, who shoulder an enormous burden of the up to 500,000 estimated annual global deaths due to seasonal influenza.

COVID-19 demonstrates in tragic, bold relief that all countries are in this fight together. Finding the resources to fight it is not a zero-sum game. Indeed, abandoning the world’s most impoverished countries now will only lead to an enormous number of preventable deaths and further global economic instability that puts all of our community at ongoing risk. A truly global fight is a moral priority.

Duncan Maru, MD, PhD, and Sabitri Sapkota, MPH, PHD with the Arnhold Institute for Global Health and the Department of Health Systems Design and Global Health at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.