Coronavirus Pandemic Poised To Explode In Poorer Countries : Goats and Soda So far, the coronavirus has hit hardest in the wealthy countries of Asia, Europe and the U.S. But the pandemic appears poised to explode in the developing world — which has far fewer resources.

As Pandemic Spreads, The Developing World Looks Like The Next Target

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So far, countries in the developing world haven't been hit as hard by the coronavirus as wealthier nations in Asia, Europe and North America. But the pandemic now appears ready to explode in those countries, which have far fewer resources to combat the virus. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has been studying the global trends, and he joins us now. Good morning, Greg.


MARTIN: So could you start by just explaining this phenomenon? I mean, why richer countries were hit first by the coronavirus?

MYRE: Well, simply put, the virus traveled from China to the countries that had the most contact with China. So these were initially the rich countries of East Asia. We're talking South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore - then on to Europe and the U.S. All of these countries had lots of flights, lots of business, lots of tourism with China. So Johns Hopkins University has the most detailed chart of coronavirus cases in the world, and it's quite striking. Almost all of the top 25 countries with the most cases of the virus - with just a couple exceptions - are these wealthier countries. And it's important to note that the U.S. and others are really preoccupied with their own struggle. And they haven't really been in position to orchestrate any kind of global response.

MARTIN: Right. So we're now several months into this outbreak and it keeps spreading - right? - around the world. What are we seeing right now in developing countries?

MYRE: Well, this next tier of countries sort of - you can think of them as large, developing countries - appear to be at a real tipping point. And it's ominous because they have nowhere near the resources of these wealthier countries. We're talking about India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil. Relatively low numbers so far in these countries - maybe from a few thousand to just a few hundred, but it's starting to accelerate. A lot of them are getting their biggest daily counts ever. And so I spoke about this with Mira Rapp-Hooper, who's at the Council on Foreign Relations.

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: There are a lot of other countries at lower income levels that already have significant coronavirus outbreaks. They are very likely going undetected or underdetected while the pandemic continues to spread in those countries.

MARTIN: So what can they do? I mean, what options do these countries have?

MYRE: Well, they're starting late and their options are limited. Let's look at India with 1.3 billion people - second-most-populous country in the world. Prime Minister Modi imposed a 21-day lockdown last week. And within days, he went on nationwide radio and he asked forgiveness for the extreme hardship this was imposing. You have so many people living at the margins, so much crowding there. Social distancing is really almost an impossibility in these megacities, like New Delhi and Mumbai. And these measures used in rich countries may not be realistic in poor countries. And so I called Jennifer Nuzzo, who's at Johns Hopkins University.

JENNIFER NUZZO: It's one thing for us here in the United States to sit at home and telework for, you know, weeks or months. But it's another thing to ask people in countries where their sole income may be from going out into the streets and selling things to tell them to stay home for weeks and months and potentially not earn an income to feed their families.

MYRE: One of the most dramatic effects in India has been this mass migration. Literally millions and millions of the urban poor are fleeing the cities - and often on foot because a lot of transportation has shut down - and they're heading back to their homes in the villages. And clearly, this can spread the virus on these trips and is not something that the government wanted or intended.

MARTIN: Right. So is anyone daring to make a prognosis for these developing countries right now?

MYRE: Well, it's really tough. There's no obvious, easy solutions. Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins did cite a potential silver lining. She was part of a global study published last October on how countries were prepared for pandemics. It didn't entirely follow income levels. But one good example was Nigeria, which did much better than expected during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Its health system functioned, and it came in much better than predictions.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Greg Myre for us. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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