Britain’s Covid-19 Death Toll Goes Far Beyond Its Borders

by David Wearing

2 July 2020

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, criticism of the British government has focused on the costs of its negligence within the UK’s own borders. But Britain is a global power, and its actions have consequences around the world. To properly understand the government’s responsibility for the total death toll, we need to take a more international view.  

Nowhere is this more true than in Yemen, scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis even before the pandemic struck. The main cause of this crisis is an indiscriminate bombing campaign and blockade of the country carried out over five years by Saudi Arabia and its allies. Britain has played an indispensable role, providing ammunition for the Saudis’ British-built military jets, and the spare parts and maintenance that keep the planes in the sky.

Saudi bombing has repeatedly hit hospitals and other vital civilian infrastructure, while the blockade has devastated the economy. The UN warns that Yemen’s healthcare system has now “in effect collapsed”. One child dies every ten minutes from preventable disease, 10.2m children have no access to basic healthcare, and 2m infant children are malnourished.

At the same time, remittances from Yemeni workers abroad have dried up during the global recession, and international aid has been cut back drastically. At a time when governments are warning us to regularly wash our hands, three quarters of Yemeni households cannot even afford soap.

In other words, Yemen is completely exposed to the ravages of the pandemic, its defences destroyed by Britain’s allies, with Britain’s help. Official figures give no sense of the true number of casualties, as many are turned away by hospitals or simply die in their homes. The BBC’s Lyse Doucet reports that in southern Yemen, gravediggers are unable to keep up with the death rate.

The spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has warned that unless something changes, “the world will have to witness what happens in a country without a functioning health system battling Covid-19. And I do not think the world wants to see that”.

Despite this, the bombing continues, with the number of Saudi air raids actually increasing since the pandemic began. As ever, Britain is playing a key role in making this possible, continuing to provide the components and maintenance that keep Saudi jets in operation. If we have something to say about our government’s failure to provide proper PPE or adequate testing and tracing capacity in the UK, then we should certainly have something to say about the horrors it is currently unleashing on the people of Yemen.

Few countries have paid a higher price for decisions made in Westminster than Iraq, currently experiencing a major spike in Covid-19 infections. A decade of Anglo-American bombing and sanctions after the 1991 Gulf war had already decimated the economy and civilian infrastructure even before the invasion of 2003. That invasion triggered a further decade and a half of bloodletting, which destroyed the country’s healthcare system, and which had only just begun to tentatively wind down when the pandemic struck.

Iraq is now in a state of widespread civilian panic, with some hospitals unable to treat new patients, and a chronic shortage of supplies. National Public Radio in the US reports that “ageing hospitals are littered with broken equipment and trash in the halls. There is so little nursing staff that patients are expected to bring a relative to care for them”. In a country that Britain helped to destroy, and then forgot, the prospects for the coming months look truly ominous.

British arms sales and military action are not the only policies inflaming the human costs of the pandemic. Foreign economic policy has played a role as well. We have seen in the UK that underfunding degrades public health capacity, while precarious, underpaid jobs undermine people’s ability to adhere to social distancing. As Adam Hanieh notes, the neoliberal economic model that deliberately creates these conditions is one that has been imposed throughout the Global South to a far deeper extent than in this country, with the UK playing a major role in driving these ‘structural adjustments’ – for instance, through its major shareholding in the IMF.

The global economic system shaped by the leading capitalist states like the UK is one that leaves billions without adequate healthcare, consigned to cramped and unsanitary housing, and unable to afford to observe social distancing for fear of going hungry. The human costs of this system in the context of the pandemic have barely begun to play out. But if states like ours can impose these costs, then they can help to alleviate them as well.

It is long past time to start talking about the impact of British foreign and economic policy on the Covid-19 death toll worldwide. The first stage is to raise consciousness about the UK’s responsibilities in this regard. The second stage is to draw up demands and then press for them.

These demands might include the UK paying reparations in specific cases, most obviously Yemen and Iraq, with the sums commensurate with the level of need in those countries. Major north-south fiscal transfers are undoubtedly required to support economies and public health systems, and to ensure adequate testing and tracing capacity wherever it is needed.

Beyond that, Global South debt cancellation, the cancellation of neoliberal structural adjustment, and wider structural change to the balance of decision-making power in the world economy must also be on the agenda. It ought to go without saying that an end to global arms transfers, as well as a global ceasefire, need to happen as a matter of urgency.

Whether in terms of its history or its present, Britain’s ability to cause harm in the Global South is sustained partly by its ability to render that harm invisible to itself. In both cases, we need to tear off the blindfold, and force a confrontation with reality.

David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.


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