Yesterday evening (17 August) the BBC 10 O’clock television news reported that ‘the worst affected cases’ of COVID 19 are now the US and India. In this, they were repeating a mantra that has recently arisen around the world relating to the seemingly disastrously rapid spread of the virus in the global south, but particularly in Africa and South Asia. The Indian case is, particularly quoted again and again in the US and the UK as an example of how the virus can be so speedily undermining and capable of destroying nations and their social systems. In the western media image, the general spread of the virus into Asia and the poorer regions of the world generally is somehow of a different order than in Europe or the US and other wealthy parts of the world – more tyrannical, destructive and uncontrolled, more illustrative of underlying economic, political and cultural weaknesses in the social systems of nations such as India or Bangladesh.
With random abandon, they maintain this stance alongside the continually rising COVID infection and mortality figures of the US and the terrible experience of the West at large. Thus, in the bulletin quoted above, the total infection statistics for the US (5,622,237) and for India (2,752,272), are offered up without refinement or nuance. The crude totals make headlines, the reality underneath remains for the back pages or the late-night discussions. This has been the case for some time now, but it says far more about Western arrogance than it does about Southern subjugation to the virus.
So, we should repeat the obvious response – to date, infections per million population in US are 16,572, for India, they are 1,992, which is only 12% of the US infection per capita. Mortality figures tell even more – in the US they now stand at 526 per million, in India at 33; the per capita death toll from the virus in India is only 6% that of the US.
This is not meant as a mean tit-for-tat or told-you-so, it’s simply an unravelling of truth in a very simple way. The implications are important. An enormous low-income nation sharing borders with other poor nations, with far less funding for health care, communications, transport and hygiene and sanitation now runs well ahead of the richest nation on earth in the damage and survival stakes in the war against COVID 19. These underlying comparative quantities have been consistent for months now, and no sudden spike in infection levels can disturb that basic truth. Western flimflam is mischievous and upsetting and of little assistance at a time of global crisis.
The case given is but the most massive of numerous interminable misleading instances of reportage. The more accurate picture right now is that the real disaster resides in Europe and the Americas. Looking at the worst 15 world cases of Covid infection in per capita terms, five are tiny nations, in contrast the US is the largest and stands at rank 8. Four are large nations in South America (in COVID per capita order Chile, Panama, Peru, Brazil), the rest are a miscellany of small nations, from Andorra to Qatar. The per million figures range from Qatar at 40,986 to Luxembourg at 11,891. None of the five nations are Asian. This has not been noticed in the Western media.
In terms of deaths per million from Covid the top 15 nations are dominated by the west – in order of mortality Belgium, Andorra, Spain, UK, Italy, Sweden, USA, and France, the Americas also yielding Peru, Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Panama. There are no nations from Asia or Africa in the list. This is very serious in terms of any global analysis. Mortality is generally a better measure of the depth of virus invasion than is incidence, and it also is a better and more reliable indicator of the efficacy of national virus management in holding back the virus over time.
Finally, even within Asia itself, the very large South Asian nations do not appear amongst the per capita highest COVID nations until rank 18 India and 19 Bangladesh. Long cited as an exemplary case of COVID management, a more recent rise in cases now places Singapore at rank 8 within Asia (9520 per million), well above the huge nations of South and South-East Asia, and nearly 5 times higher than India.
Of course, we must all admit that Asia and Africa are suffering hugely from COVID 19. But getting it wrong in the present Western mode could be dangerous. If anything, the longer-terms devastation of COVID 19 in the global south is more likely to be indirect than direct – especially, this virus does uncover the relationships between poverty, health and the ability for self-help survival, going well beyond the problems of low income as such. The periodic threat of huge exposure to external disaster – man-made or natural – in nations of fundamental poverty and structural weaknesses represents the true disaster of that poverty, the delicate balance between survival on one hand and economic and cultural failure on the other.
Radical minds should perhaps free themselves from the tyranny of false quantities and focus more on the global processes that expose millions of individuals to extreme risk, to the desperate behavior of failing states, and to the crumbling of old, reliable cultural mores and values. Where in the west, COVID 19 threatens health and economic recovery, even in moribund and tired democracies the likelihood is that they shall recover and move on to managing processes of global production, trade, investment and technological innovation through a relatively smooth phase of transition. Even the US will probably survive Trump, Black Lives Matter, Trade Wars and COVID 19. The longer-term pattern for the poorer nations of the world might be yet more serious.
Professor Ian Inkster is a global historian and political economist who has taught and researched at universities in Britain, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. Author of 13 books on global dynamics and history, with particular focus on industrial and technological development, and the editor of History of Technology since 2000. Forthcoming books are Distraction Capitalism: The World Since 1971, and Invasive Technology and Indigenous Frontiers. Case Studies of Accelerated Change in History with David Pretel.
(Views are personal)