The initial outlook was grim: Senegal had only seven doctors per 100,000 citizens. Thailand had just two hospital beds for every 1,000 people — one-third the regional average. Tiny Uruguay shares a border with Brazil, where the virus was raging out of control. Surely all of these countries, so lacking in resources, would suffer greatly from Covid-19.
What happened instead was quite different. While the U.S. and Western Europe quickly became hot zones, countries from across the so-called developing world deftly contained and controlled the virus. Senegal committed early on to finding a hospital bed for every single case. Thailand responded with a countrywide testing regime the World Bank called “heroic.” Uruguay launched a contact tracing system that any country would envy. Their fatality rates have reflected these efforts: Just 350 in Senegal, 60 in Thailand, 98 in Uruguay.
To be sure, not every developing country has fared as well as these ones have. A number of low- and middle-income countries have been hit hard by the virus, from Mexico to India to Turkey. But overall, the developing world has performed exceptionally. That may sound surprising, but it shouldn’t be. These successes reflect a level of resilience that many developing countries have been cultivating while the wealthier world wasn’t looking.
Just as the Covid crisis has revealed the cracks in the systems of many rich countries, so too has it showcased the strengths and dexterity of developing ones. It has busted the myth that non-wealthy countries are somehow less functional, have little to teach and are intrinsically reliant on the West for guidance. What we call the “developing world” has, in fact, developed spectacularly in its own nimble way.
And it has lessons to teach. When the pandemic struck, many Western nations acted as if this was the first event of its kind in modern times, one for which they needed to improvise solutions starting from zero. But in fact, many developing countries had lived through similar epidemics before — SARS in Asia, MERS in the Middle East, Ebola in Africa — and could have led the way, teaching wealthier countries how to respond. These countries leveraged the knowledge they had gained from their prior epidemics as soon as the Covid crisis hit, screening incoming travelers and tracing the contacts of positive cases. They implemented cheap but effective measures, like mask wearing and temperature checks in public spaces. Their low-tech solutions were, in many cases, the most effective.
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These countries may not be in the top 10 — or even the top 50 — in terms of GDP. But their response to the pandemic has been nothing if not advanced. You could say the same about lots of issues — there are countless problems, crises and dilemmas for which developing countries have innovated widely applicable solutions that the world could easily adopt.
Cities in Latin America, for instance, pioneered “bus rapid transit” systems, which can transport nearly as many passengers as a subway and are cheaper and easier to build. Southeast Asian cities have devised flood-mitigation measures that could be critical in an era of sea-level rise. In Nicaragua and China, doctors have learned to construct medical equipment on-site that’s every bit as good as the manufactured kind.
“We tend to look at global problems through [the lens of] whether they’re in Western or developing countries,” says Annalisa Prizzon, a senior research fellow at the think tank Overseas Development Institute. “But that distinction is becoming less and less clear.”
Part of the issue is that our definition of which countries are “developed” and which are “developing” relies entirely on how much money a country has. The World Bank sorts countries into these designations based solely on income per capita, “which we know is an imperfect measure,” says Prizzon. “It captures only one single dimension.” A country’s functionality and livability is determined not only by how much money it has, but by how it chooses to spend that money.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown this into relief. Costa Rica’s GDP per capita is less than one-fifth the United States’, but it has invested heavily in its public health system. Today, the best of its medical facilities are rated more highly than many in the U.S. and Europe, and the World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica one notch higher (36th) than the U.S. (37th) in health care delivery. Likewise, Vietnam has made public health a priority, with health coverage for 88 percent of its citizens and childhood vaccination rates that exceed America’s. Both countries have weathered the pandemic far better than much richer countries.
It’s not just public health. In a variety of ways, developing nations have been punching above their weight for a while now, as steady investments in technology, services, governance and infrastructure begin to bear fruit. Countries from Morocco to Uzbekistan now have high-speed railway networks, and the cheap but effective bus rapid transit systems of Bogota, Guangzhou and Mexico City reflect cutting-edge urban design. The world’s fastest broadband internet can be found in Lithuania and Romania (where citizens can access it free of charge), and Nicaragua and Kenya are well ahead of many richer countries in building energy systems powered mostly by renewables.
These shifting dynamics played out publicly last year when President Trump insisted that South Korea stop calling itself a developing country. (It was more than semantics — developing countries are given preferential treatment by the World Trade Organization.) Eventually the Koreans admitted that, as the world’s tenth-largest economy, they are probably no longer “developing.” But even putting aside their wealth, many South Koreans already saw their country as more advanced than their Western peers.
Covid only reinforced that view. South Korea has been praised for its pandemic response, with steady governance, a robust public health system, economic safeguards and high levels of social compliance. When the outbreak began, South Korea found itself donating testing kits to countries it used to get international aid from. Lee Hyun-song, a professor at South Korea’s Hankuk University, told Politico that the Covid pandemic was an epiphany for Koreans themselves — it made them “realize that the U.S. is no longer a more ‘developed’ country than us.”
The idea that there are developed countries and developing countries hasn’t been around forever. In 1952, a French demographer kicked off the idea when he coined the term “the third world.” It was meant to describe countries that were not aligned with either the Soviet Union or the United States — countries that were generally poorer, more exploitable and less strategically significant. In many ways that stigma clouds the achievements of such countries to this day. But the global pandemic may turn out to be a clarifying force that finally changes that.