Has COVID-19 subverted global health?

For the first time in the post-war history of epidemics, there is a reversal of which countries are most heavily affected by a disease pandemic. By early May, 2020, more than 90% of all reported deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have been in the world's richest countries; if China, Brazil, and Iran are included in this group, then that number rises to 96%. The rest of the world—historically far more used to being depicted as the reservoir of pestilence and disease that wealthy countries sought to protect themselves from, and the recipient of generous amounts of advice and modest amounts of aid from rich governments and foundations—looks on warily as COVID-19 moves into these regions.

Despite this reversal, however, the usual formula of dispensing guidance continues to be played out, with policies deemed necessary for the hardest-hit wealthy countries becoming a one-size-fits-all message for all countries. Two centrepieces of this approach are the use of widespread lockdowns to enforce physical distancing—although, it is notable that a few wealthy countries like Sweden and South Korea have not adopted this strategy—and a focus on sophisticated tertiary hospital care and technological solutions. We question the appropriateness of these particular strategies for less-resourced countries with distinct population structures, vastly different public health needs, immensely fewer health-care resources, less participatory governance, massive within-country inequities, and fragile economies. We argue that these strategies might subvert two core principles of global health: that context matters and that social justice and equity are paramount.