While the media focuses on countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic — China, United States, Italy and South Korea — relatively less news emerges from the bulk of the world’s population living in developing countries.
It is good news the institutions established to build back war-torn Europe after World War II — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — do concentrate on the more vulnerable populations. As an example, the World Bank opened up a $14 billion fast-track funding package to address pandemic responses across the global south.
The United Nations is doing its best to highlight the grim prospects of those 70 million people who are displaced and now live in refugee camps or urban slums.
But there are no trillion dollar emergency funds, followed by even greater stimulus monies, set to land in the poorest countries in the world. Yet, they are the least prepared to address this and future public health crises.
For many years, the United Nations, the World Bank and other international institutions have been addressing the lack of energy services. Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called them the golden thread of development — and for good reason.
For many, the need for energy services is obvious for reasons of commerce, education, or security. Sometimes overlooked is their critical role in supporting public health, hospitals and medicine refrigeration.
The Sustainable Energy for All organization launched its energy for health initiative about five years ago. It largely focuses on rural health clinics and has already saved lives. Mothers no longer give birth in the dark; immunization medicines no longer go bad for lack of refrigeration; premature babies get the care they need in the first days of life.
Of course, energy is also fundamental to provide for the needs of urban medical centers and modern public health programs — from cleaning medical instruments, to providing electricity for manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE), to keeping the lights on and powering life sustaining ventilators in large hospitals, or to supporting communications for emergency services.
Like in all global crises — whether public health, financial or climate change — the vulnerable populations in developing countries tend to get hit the hardest. While this coronavirus has yet to fully spread the global south, we must assume it too will strike as hard as the rest of the world.
Yet, already we begin to envision the world after COVID-19, and to consider the historic opportunities we have in reinvigorating our communities and institutions. We have a once-in-a-generation geo-political mandate to reconsider our economic operating systems, and in turn, change the trajectory of our energy use and the next public health crisis — a rapidly changing climate.
We have seen firsthand how critical reliable energy is to maintaining health infrastructure in the developing world. Additionally, we have studied and quantified the health inequities exacerbated by climate change.
The focus on providing reliable and affordable energy systems globally is not a matter of charity; it is fundamental to global public health, regardless of the nature of the crisis.
To ensure the resilience of these countries and jurisdictions improve in light of this pandemic, we should prioritize international efforts to support universal energy access at levels necessary to support robust public health institutions and tools. This will require policy makers and the investment community to shift their attention towards developing economies.
While the philanthropic community has a key role to play in this shuffling of priorities, governments must step up to help not only their own citizens, but to globally promote a more inclusive view of underrepresented communities.
We would be wise to reflect upon the post-war lessons that birthed the institutions of global governance that have served us well for 75 years. The same logic applies today in the midst of the pandemic, as Winston Churchill said, “healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.”
By working towards a world in which our most vulnerable have access to reliable and sustainable energy, we may advance both human capital potential and human dignity in the same effort.
Morgan Bazilian is a professor of public policy at the Colorado School of Mines, and a former Lead Energy Specialist at the World Bank. Jay Lemery is a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and author of the textbook “Global Climate Change and Human Health.”