Minister of International Development concerned about unreported cases of Covid-19 in vulnerable countries –calls for concerted international effort

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‘The coronavirus knows no borders. If we are to combat this pandemic, we must immediately implement the necessary preventive measures both here in Norway and at the global level. A coordinated international effort is now vital to save lives and limit the long-term negative consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the economic consequences,’ said Minister of International Development Dag-Inge Ulstein. 

We are seeing societies that have good emergency preparedness systems and strong health services being paralysed by the Covid-19 pandemic. There are major concerns about what will happen when the virus spreads in more vulnerable countries with weak health systems. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a need for an additional NOK 5.7 billion (USD 571 million) globally to ensure that the necessary infection prevention and control measures are in place to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak, which has now been declared a pandemic. In its Covid-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SPRP), WHO calls for USD 675 million in funding for immediate and preventive measures, for the period February-April 2020. At a WHO meeting on Thursday 12 March, it emerged that pledges totalling USD 440 million had so far been made. 

In addition, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called for USD 33 million in funding for its Covid-19 appeal, to boost preparedness, prevention and response activities to address the immediate public health needs of refugees, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has launched a USD 17 million strategic plan to help countries address the coronavirus outbreak. 

‘I am deeply concerned about the prospect of uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 in countries and regions that neither have the health services nor the resources needed to respond to this pandemic. The latest figures from WHO show that there are not many registered cases of infection in Africa, but there may be unreported cases. A lack of testing capacity and protective equipment, combined with inadequate health services in developing countries, will severely affect the people in these countries, who are already among the world’s most vulnerable. This will also contribute to the further spread of Covid-19. According to WHO, health workers on the front line in many poor countries with weak health systems simply do not have access to personal protective equipment,’ said Mr Ulstein. 

Although a number of countries have yet to register cases of Covid-19, we must be prepared for the fact that there may be unreported cases. There is also reason to believe that many countries do not have sufficient capacity to test people for infection or respond to outbreaks of the disease.

‘Not long ago, I was in Malawi. As yet there are no registered cases of infection there. They have started screening travellers at the country’s main airports, but only during the daytime. There are no isolation or treatment centres in the capital city. There are no laboratories that can test for Covid-19. The tests that have been taken so far have been sent to South Africa. We are receiving similar reports from a number of particularly vulnerable countries. I am especially concerned about countries like South Sudan, where a Covid-19 outbreak would have a major impact on the provision ofhumanitarian aid, on the ongoing conflict, and on food security. There is already considerable food insecurity, and parts of the population are affected by famine. To make matters even worse, large swarms of desert locusts are destroying food crops, and an outbreak of Covid-19 couldhave catastrophic consequences.

‘We need a coordinated international response, and WHO is playing a key role in this context. We are supporting WHO’s efforts to lead and coordinate the global response. WHO will continue to need our support in the time ahead,’ said Mr Ulstein.

Norway is also supporting the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), which is working to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible. 

‘I know that Cepi is working tirelessly to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, but there is an urgent need for more funding. According to Richard Hatchett, CEO of Cepi, a further USD 475 million in pledges is needed by the end of March to fund Cepi’s work in the next three months and make it possible for Cepi to continue its efforts to develop a vaccine,’ said Mr Ulstein. 

‘Prime Minister Erna Solberg has contacted a number of heads of state and government to urge them to provide funding for Cepi and the global response to Covid-19. I was pleased to hear that Chancellor Angela Merkel has now announced that Germany will provide EUR 140 million to Cepi’s work,’ said Mr Ulstein. 

Norway was quick to support the urgent global response to the outbreak of coronavirus, Covid-19, providing NOK 10 million to WHO and NOK 36 million to Cepi. This funding came in addition to Norway’s ordinary contributions to Cepi (a total of NOK 1.6 billion for the period 2017-2025). 

Norway is also a major donor to the World Bank. The World Bank has set a good example, and has provided USD 12 billion in funding so that developing countries can strengthen their health systems. This funding can be used, for example, to improve access to health services that can protect people against the pandemic, enhance disease monitoring and reporting, and promote more effective emergency preparedness measures and closer cooperation with the private sector on reducing the negative impacts on the countries’ economies.