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COVID-19 isn’t the Only Disease to Cripple Emerging Economies- It’s Time to Tackle Those Too

A man uses anti-mosquito fogging in an attempt to prevent the spread of malaria.

While living in Ghana as a 15-year-old, I had the misfortune of contracting malaria. Following the disease’s violent onset, it took several weeks before I regained enough strength to comfortably climb a flight of stairs, and all told I lost more than 25 pounds from my already scrawny teenage frame.

Despite my discomfort, I learned I was one of the lucky ones. My family could afford treatment, and though I missed a couple weeks of school, the disease didn’t threaten my family’s income like it does for so many. Each year somewhere between 300 and 600 million people suffer from the parasitic disease, and around one million die. The young are at particular risk, as the disease kills roughly 3000 children every day. Two-fifths of the world’s population live in regions where they are at risk of malaria.

The toll of disease

Similar to what the global community has experienced with COVID-19, malaria inflicts a high economic cost in the regions where it’s prevalent. In Ghana, malaria care costs poor households more than a third of their incomes. More broadly, in sub-Saharan Africa where 90% of malaria cases occur, the disease slows economic growth by about 1.3% every year as a result of lost life and lower productivity. To put that in perspective, a recent estimate places the cost of COVID-19 to China’s GDP growth at 1%.

That’s not to minimize the untold suffering of those whose health or economic wellbeing have been affected by COVID-19; instead, it’s a call to action. When the global community beats COVID-19, instead of relaxing, governments, development organizations, and the private sector should continue working together to fight endemic diseases that cripple regional economies. In the short run, people suffering from diseases like malaria will require quick solutions that can alleviate suffering, such as medical interventions. But a long-run solution will need to be more holistic in nature, addressing both the underlying medical and economic issues surrounding the problem.

Starting a virtuous cycle

Many governments in sub-Saharan Africa will simply never have the resources to adequately fight malaria—or COVID-19 for that matter—so long as most of their citizens remain in poverty. Certainly there is a cyclical relationship between disease and poverty, but history shows that the cycle can be broken. Look at the United States, where malaria was endemic to many states until the 20th century, before which much of America was as poor as many countries where malaria is still rampant today.

Like the vast majority of now-prosperous countries we’ve researched, the economic engine that drove America towards prosperity was market-creating innovation. By making products affordable and accessible, these innovations pulled new populations of consumers into the economy and started a virtuous cycle that produced new jobs, instilled a culture of entrepreneurship, led to investments in infrastructure, and generated profits—including tax revenue for governments. The cumulative effect of market-creating innovations is what ultimately prepared the US and many other countries to eliminate malaria in the 20th century.

For instance, as America grew more prosperous it was able to develop better institutions, such that in the 1900s, it began funding an aggressive campaign to eradicate malaria. In 1942 it founded the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas in Atlanta (later to be renamed the CDC), and less than a decade later, malaria was no longer a significant public health problem. Dozens of other countries followed a similar path as they, too, grew prosperous. With time, market-creating innovations can also create the foundation that enables today’s less prosperous countries to fight endemic diseases.

Even though crises like the one caused by COVID-19 are uncommon in the wealthy world, they are too familiar for poor countries, to the point where they often are not seen as crises, but rather facts of life. Once the global pandemic is over, however, the international development community can and ought to carry momentum forward. By coupling short-term interventions with investments in market-creating innovations, governments, development organizations, and innovators can finally bring an end to endemic crises like the one caused by malaria.

Lincoln Wilcox is a research associate at the Christensen Institute, where he researches ways in which individuals, businesses, governments, and nonprofits can leverage innovation to create prosperity in low-income countries and communities.

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