Coronavirus – who gets it?

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Coronavirus – who gets it?

Action and no action on coronavirus is about equality, locally and internationally, writes Vanessa Baird.


It is the most difficult for low-paid workers and those in the gig economy to ‘socially distance’ themselves. And it is possible that they feel they must work when they are ill. Credit: WikiCommons

Over the weekend, 14-15 March 2020, there was a sudden increase in the cases of Coronavirus and in people’s opinions about it. Sunday had the highest number of deaths in one day from the virus in Europe.

Many countries called a state of emergency. Germany closed its land borders. Others will probably follow. Schools, restaurants, bars, clubs, and gyms are closed. Public meetings are banned, even in cities like New York. Airlines have stopped flying.

Central banks have made emergency interest rate cuts to try to slow a global recession.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said Europe is the centre of the virus but 26 African countries now have cases. Action on the virus is different in different countries. But the most successful – as Singapore and South Korea showed – have ‘social distancing’, a lot of testing, and good public information.

Britain is not following this.

The government of Boris Johnson seems to have a relaxed approach. They talk about ‘herd immunity’, many people becoming immune to the disease. Many scientists around the world say this is risky. In the UK people are confused because there is no clear advice on ‘social distancing’ and most people who have tried to get tested have found it difficult. Even health workers cannot get tested and they complain that there is not enough equipment for them to use.

In an open letter to the government last week, more than 200 scientists in Britain asked for the government to think again and for more social distancing. A WHO spokesperson said about the British approach, ‘It’s time for action not theory.’

The government’s health experts say that ‘herd immunity’ would come after more than 60 per cent of the UK population had the virus. That would be about 40 million people. That means 400,000 deaths.

People at risk

The people most at risk have health and social problems, disabilities, and are over 60.

It is the most difficult for low-paid workers and those in the gig economy to ‘socially distance’ themselves. And it is possible that they feel they must work when they are ill. Homeless people are more likely to have breathing problems and have to share crowded hostels. They are especially at risk.

The WHO says Europe is the global centre of the virus now. Northern Italy has the highest number of cases outside China and we are seeing that even in the richest places, it becomes very difficult very quickly for the health services.

Some European Union countries are closing their borders, even to each other. At the weekend, the EU announced strict restrictions on the export of medical equipment to non-EU states. But what about poorer countries with weaker health systems, such as those in most of Africa?

Kenya’s health service, for example, has lost many trained doctors and nurses because they went abroad to work. Countries like Somalia have even weaker systems. Some of the West and Central African countries that dealt with Ebola at least have some experience of such crises.

Refugees from war and violence are perhaps the most at risk.

Already last week Doctors Without Borders (MSF) called for help for asylum seekers to leave the terrible camps on the Greek islands. The refugees are living in conditions perfect for the virus. There is one case on the island of Lesbos, which has 19,000 migrants in the Moria camp, built for fewer than 3,000. In some parts of the camp there is just one water tap for every 1,300 people and no soap.

At the time of writing there are no cases in refugee camps in Syria. The danger is that with 6.2 million internally displaced people and a weak health system it is probably just a matter of time.

And, there are four million refugees in Turkey. Many have come from Iran – a country with more than 12,700 cases and probably many more.


Many countries around the world have tightened their borders. It seems that this is for health reasons but it also serves nationalist anti-immigrant political agendas. People are already blaming migrants for coronavirus but this makes no sense and is unfair. The pandemic comes from globalization and easy air transport. The people who fly most are not running away from war and poverty. They are the rich. COVID-19 will show us who we are. We may help to protect the people at risk more or close our doors and hearts to them.

Now is the time to send more international help to refugees and to those helping them, and to countries with weak health systems.

At a local level, there are good examples of people ready to help. For example, more than 300 mutual aid groups started in Britain over the weekend. They put leaflets through doors offering help and starting up WhatsApp groups.

One woman said, ‘I am a disabled person with carers. I am self-isolating with my 92-year old mother. We already know that social services and the NHS could not cope before this virus came. I am very well prepared for months of isolation but I will need help before it is over. When we found the Islington Mutual Aid group it gave us hope and changed our view of the future.’

The challenge will also be to help people internationally in these times of fear and isolation.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)