Suffering on suffering
MCC’s global health coordinator reflects on how the pain of COVID-19 builds on existing inequalities and what this means for how MCC responds.
Top photo: In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in September 2020, Riziki Mpendacheko, along with other displaced people and local families in need, received an agriculture toolkit. Photo/Kabamba Lwamba
Even for public health professionals, the scale of COVID-19’s impact has been breathtaking. As I write this in November 2020, the pandemic has cost more than a million lives and brought untold human and economic suffering to nearly every community on the planet.
However, the full story of COVID-19’s impact on the lives of individuals, communities and countries is not being written on blank paper, but on paper already inscribed by history, inequality and injustice.
I’ve thought often during this pandemic about a conversation I had with Polycarpe Joseph, the director of an MCC-supported school in Port-au-Prince, in 2016, following Hurricane Matthew’s devastation in Haiti. I was calling to ask about those people most impacted by the storm in his community: families whose makeshift houses had been flooded, their few belongings destroyed, their lives upturned. He sighed, “This suffering is not new. It is suffering on suffering, crisis on top of crisis. It is worse, but this is not new for the poor.”
Even in countries like Canada and the U.S., where vast resources have been mobilized to respond to COVID-19, the pain has not been equal.
Indigenous communities in Canada are seeing loved ones endangered by the coronavirus at rates far above the general population. Test positivity rates in Manitoba First Nations, for instance, have hit as high as 21 per cent, nearly 50 per cent higher than the highest average rates in Manitoba.
People and communities who were already economically less well-off are finding themselves falling further behind.
"This suffering is not new. It is suffering on suffering, crisis on top of crisis. It is worse, but this is not new for the poor.”
- Polycarpe Joseph
Globally, these divergent impacts only widen.
Last October, the World Bank estimated that between 88 and 115 million more people would be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 due to COVID-19, newly unable to afford even the basics of food and shelter. The United Nations argues that the biggest impacts have fallen disproportionately on the least well-off groups in the least well-off countries.
Workers without formal job contracts in Africa have seen extreme poverty grow by 62 per cent this year, despite lower than expected direct health impacts of the disease on the continent. Similarly, on average, women globally are seeing their unemployment rates rise 20 per cent more than men’s in 2020 due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.
UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) reported an additional 35 million children facing hunger in 2020 due to the crisis and as many as 1.2 million additional childhood deaths due to disrupted health systems.
The pain that so many are feeling is not completely new, but a deepening of existing struggles and unequal risks.
Many people are taking extra care for those most vulnerable to the disease, particularly older people and those with medical risk factors. As I work from home in Goshen, Ind., I am newly aware of how closely my own health and decisions are linked to the health of others around me. Despite living just down the road, I have not hugged my grandmother in months, even as her health deteriorates with aging and the opportunities to ever do so again fade away.
We have all intuitively experienced what unequal risk means when we hold a fragile newborn or help someone who is elderly climb stairs. We know that the same fall a healthy teenager can shake off could be catastrophic for someone else. Risks are never equally distributed and they often compound existing inequalities and injustices.
In some ways, COVID-19 has exposed our deep global and local interconnections. But at the same time, COVID-19 has reminded us again of how fragmented and unjust our communities and world still are.
As MCC’s global health coordinator, these deep inequalities are never far from mind as I work with our staff and partners here in the U.S. and around the world.
"May we be agents of healing in this broken world."
What advice for prevention do you give to partners working in contexts where maintaining physical distancing is a luxury, clean water for handwashing is out of reach for most and a decision to stay home means a family skipping meals?
As I anxiously watch the hospital capacity in my own town fill up, what is it like to live in a country without any sufficiently equipped and staffed intensive care (ICU) beds, if that level of care were to become necessary for someone we love?
I am grateful that MCC has been able to respond to COVID-19 quickly and holistically—with projects including emergency food supports, water and sanitation, public health prevention messaging and measures to keep staff, volunteers and the most vulnerable safe. This work has helped protect countless lives and it continues to make a difference for thousands of families around the world who already faced uphill odds.
MCC is helping at-risk families protect themselves with basic prevention supplies from rural Appalachia in the U.S. to displaced families in Syria and Lebanon. Understanding the heightened economic vulnerability of so many, we have provided canned meat in U.S. cities like Philadelphia and Fresno, Calif., and are stepping up support for food security and livelihood projects in communities in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries. From Ukraine to Afghanistan to Haiti we are ensuring that vital health services are not forced to shut down when they are needed most.
Though all of us around the world are tired of this pandemic and at risk of becoming numb to its pain, we continue to live, work and pray in hope of a better tomorrow. While we have not all faced the same risks due to COVID-19, we have all been reminded of our own vulnerabilities and interdependence.
As we pray together for an end to this pandemic, may we be renewed in our compassion for ourselves and others, and mindful that for many of us this crisis has come on top of existing crises. As my friend Polycarpe would say, it is suffering on top of suffering for many. May we be agents of healing in this broken world.
Paul Shetler Fast served as MCC representative, along with his wife Rebecca Shetler Fast, in Haiti from 2015 to 2018, when he became global health coordinator for MCC. Figures cited in this story were accurate at time of writing in fall 2020.