Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

First World Problems

I am re-posting this article that was published today in the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka. Written by one of my favourite columnists, Citizen Silva, it certainly provides food for thought in these troubled times!

Way back in the fifties, at the height of the Cold War, the French economist and demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term ‘The Third World’ (Le Tiers Monde).

Sauvy used the term to describe those countries that were aligned neither to the First World (the Capitalist NATO bloc comprising countries such as the US, France, Britain etc.) nor the Second World (the Communist bloc which included the Soviet Union Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and other Eastern European countries within the Soviet sphere of influence. In an article published in August 1952 in the French magazine, L’Observateur he observed “… at the end this ignored, exploited, scorned Third World, like the Third Estate, wants to become something too”.

A man holds a sign that reads, ‘ I Am angry as hell. Fix Unemployment Now,’ as he joins others in a protest in Miami Beach, Florida. Another 2.12 million people filed for unemployment in the US last week, pushing total layoffs since the start of the coronavirus crisis to more than 40 million, a level not seen since the Great Depression, the Labor Department said on May 28, 2020. AFP

Over the years, this term Third World, including as it did the nations of Asia, Africa and South America with their past histories of being colonised and exploited by the nations now constituting the First World, came to stereotype the globe’s poor countries. Millions of Third World people dreamed of migrating to the First World in search of a materially better life.

With the progress of history and the breakup of the Soviet Union, today we have virtually forgotten that there once was a Second World – but we continue to use the term Third World as an euphemism for the world’s impoverished countries, the primary producers of agricultural products and suppliers of cheap labour, the euphemistically named ‘developing countries’ or ‘Global South’ — and compare these unfavourably to the envied nations in the affluent First World. We all take for granted, of course, that the First World (in other words, Western Europe and North America) is more advanced — and its peoples much better resourced, far more competent and much more sophisticated than those of us in the struggling Third World. So we would all have expected that when this latest threat to the world came along in the form of a tiny coronavirus, the well-resourced, efficiently run, modern health systems of the First World would have had no difficulty in protecting its citizens and destroying the pesky virus in no uncertain terms. After all, these are the countries that have shown us that they can easily destroy perceived threats to their economies (like Iraq and Libya in recent times).

But COVID-19 has changed our perceptions and exposed the First World for what it really is — a giant with feet of clay. Some of the worst performers in the battle against the coronavirus in the past few months have been the First World nations whose citizens have been dying like flies due to the incompetence and ignorance at the top most levels of their governments.

Our former colonial master Britain and the world’s current superpower the United States have committed almost every mistake that could be made. Initially, they ignored the threat. When finally forced to act, they sent ambiguous signals to their citizens. In the US, while New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo was trying to shut down the state to prevent the virus spreading, Federal President Donald Trump was encouraging his ill-informed supporters to stage protests to fight for their right as free Americans to keep their shops and stores open and congregate in large numbers as they were accustomed to do. Neither the US nor the UK performed the testing needed to control the virus (as South Korea and Senegal did) nor provide their health workers and health care facilities with the equipment they needed.

So far the statistics paint a woeful picture of the First World’s performance.

The US has had more than 100,000 deaths, Britain 36,000, Italy 32,000, Spain 28,000 and France 28,000. Considering the populations of these countries, the Death Rate per One Million of their population is as follows: The US 300, Spain 615, both Britain and Italy 542 each and France 435.

Contrast these statistics with those of Third World Countries like Sri Lanka (9 deaths constituting 0.4 deaths per million population), Hong Kong (9 deaths, 0.5 deaths per million), Senegal 35 deaths (2 deaths per million), India 4000 deaths (3 deaths per million) and Cuba 82 deaths (8 deaths per million). In India, the southern state of Kerala with a population of 35 million was the first to encounter the virus – but has kept deaths down to 6.

Historically, quarantine and lockdown (preventing infected people from contacting non-infected people and passing the infection on to them) has been proven to be effective in infection containment and control of spread in the event of epidemics and pandemics. Whatever reservations Sri Lankans may have about our current president, even his detractors would have to admit that he acted decisively and with authority. He swiftly imposed and enforced curfews which have kept our death rate so low up to now. Added to this is an efficacious system of contact tracing, a robust public health system and a hospitable system of quarantining of new arrivals — all of which have combined so far to have kept us Sri Lankans safe from this Coronavirus.

Perhaps this experience of the coronavirus pandemic may just make us sit back and rethink this business of being “Third World”. The basic function of a nation’s government after all is to protect its citizens. Ensuring that they remain healthy and alive is far more important than allowing them to have the freedom to decide whether to wear masks or not to wear masks, the freedom to buy automatic weapons over the counter or the freedom to go out and patronise their hairdresser or their favourite restaurant or the local shopping mall.

The flight back home of expatriate Sri Lankans from First World countries like Britain and Europe these days would suggest that these folk have realised that it is much safer to be living in Sri Lanka (or Kerala or Senegal) rather than in London or New York or Madrid.



This entry was posted on May 31, 2020 by in Opinion and tagged , , , .

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