COVID-19: Virus Blows Away Myth of ‘First’ & ‘Third’ Worlds

Star performers during the pandemic are not in the historical “First World,” writes Steven Friedman.

President Donald Trump has been widely slammed for mishandling the Covid-19 crisis, costing the U.S. dearly. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Steven Friedman 
University of Johannesburg

One of the planet’s – and Africa’s – deepest prejudices is being demolished by the way countries handle Covid-19.

For as long as any of us remember, everyone “knew” that “First World” countries – in effect, Western Europe and North America – were much better at providing their citizens with a good life than the poor and incapable states of the “Third World.” “First World” has become shorthand for competence, sophistication and the highest political and economic standards.

So deep-rooted is this that even critics of the “First World” usually accept it. They might argue that it became that way by exploiting the rest of the world or that it is not morally or culturally superior. But they never question that it knows how to offer (some) people a better material life. Africans and others in the “Third World” often aspire to become like the “First World” – and to live in it, because that means living better.

So we should have expected the state-of-the-art health systems of the “First World”, spurred on by their aware and empowered citizens, to handle COVID-19 with relative ease, leaving the rest of the planet to endure the horror of buckling health systems and mass graves.

We have seen precisely the opposite.

Fatal Errors

“First World” is often code for countries run by Europeans or people of European descent; some of the worst health performers on the globe in recent weeks have been “First World.” For Anglophone Africans, it is doubly interesting that two of the greatest failures in handling Covid-19 are the former colonizer, Britain, and the English-speaking superpower, the United States of America.

Both countries’ national governments have made just about every possible mistake in tackling Covid-19.

They ignored the threat. When they were forced to act, they sent mixed signals to citizens which encouraged many to act in ways which spread the infection. Neither did anything like the testing needed to control the virus. Both failed to equip their hospitals and health workers with the equipment they needed, triggering many avoidable deaths.

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The failure was political. The U.S. is the only rich country with no national health system. An attempt by former President Barack Obama to extend affordable care was watered down by right-wing resistance, then further gutted by the current president and his party. Britain’s much-loved National Health Service has been weakened by spending cuts. Both governments failed to fight the virus in time because they had other priorities.

And yet, in Britain, the government’s popularity ratings are sky high and it is expected to win the next election comfortably. The U.S. president is behind in the polls but the contest is close enough to make his re-election a real possibility. Can there be anything more typically “Third World” than citizens supporting a government whose actions cost thousands of lives?

Western European countries such as Spain, Italy and Africa’s other wholesale coloniser, France, also battled to contain the virus. Some European countries have coped reasonably well, as have some run by the descendants of Europeans such as New Zealand and Australia. But the star performers are not in the historical “First World.”

Effective Responses

The most effective response was probably South Korea’s, followed by other East Asian states and territories. This is partly because they are used to dealing with coronavirus outbreaks. But it is also because they learned from experience: South Korea’s success is due to very effective testing and tracing of infected people. Whatever the reason, it is East Asia, not “the West,” which has done what the “First World” is expected to do.

Some would reply that East Asia is now “First World.” So, it is still superior; it has simply changed its address. This is debatable. But, even if it is accepted, some places have contained the virus in distinctly “Third World” conditions.

Kerala was the first Indian state to encounter the virus but has kept deaths down to three. It had largely curbed Covid-19 but is now dealing with nearly 200 cases, all people arriving from other parts of India. Judging by its record so far, it will contain this outbreak too.

Kerala, too, has learnt from handling previous epidemics. It also has a strong health system. But one of its key tools is citizen participation: it has worked with neighbourhood watches and citizen volunteers to track the contacts of infected people. Students were recruited to build kiosks at which citizens were tested. Kerala also had the capacity to ensure that all children entitled to school meals received them after schools were closed: non-governmental organisations were mostly responsible, emphasising the partnership between the government and citizens.

Kerala’s performance is not a fluke: it has, for years, produced better health outcomes and literacy rates than the rest of India.

Nor has Africa’s response to the virus confirmed prejudices. When Covid-19 began spreading, it became almost routine for reports, commentaries – and Melinda Gates, who, with her husband Bill, heads the couple’s development foundation – to predict that Africa would be engulfed in death as the virus ripped through its weak health systems. This is, after all, what is meant to happen in the “Third World” and particularly in Africa, which is always considered the least capable continent on the planet.

So far, it has not happened. It still might but, even if it does, some countries are coping better than the dire predictions claimed (and, perhaps, better than the “First World”). One stand-out is Senegal, which has devised a cheap test for the virus and has used 3-D printing to produce ventilators at a fraction of the going price. Africa, too, has experienced recent outbreaks, notably of Ebola, and seems to have learned valuable lessons from them.


The “First World” is still far richer than the rest of the planet and may well remain so. So its politicians, academics and journalists will probably still believe they are better than the rest.

But the Covid-19 experience may just trigger new thinking in the “Third World”. The most basic function of a government is to protect the safety of its citizens. Ensuring that people remain healthy is at least as important a guarantee of safety as protecting them from violence.

Reasonable people would surely much rather be living in Kerala or Senegal (or East Asia) right now than in Europe and North America, raising obvious questions about who really does offer a better life.

That should inspire Africans and others in the “Third World” to ask themselves whether it makes sense to want to be America, Britain or France. Covid-19 has made a strong argument for wanting to be East Asia – or, given Africa’s circumstances, Kerala.The Conversation

Steven Friedman is professor of political studies at the University of Johannesburg.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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12 comments for “COVID-19: Virus Blows Away Myth of ‘First’ & ‘Third’ Worlds

  1. rgl
    May 19, 2020 at 11:13

    As the author used the moniker ‘historical’, I would like to point out that ‘historically’, the First World referred to the US and it’s allies. The Second World referred to the Soviet Union and it’s allies. The Third world referred to those countries unaligned with either. Although somewhat correct that most wealth was held by first world countries, and to a lesser extent second and third world countries, these labels were attached due to political affiliation and not the wealth possessed by a particular nation.

    Technically speaking, the US cannot be a Third World country by definition.

  2. AnneR
    May 19, 2020 at 10:48

    By not wanting to emigrate to the so-called First World I did not mean that I’m against such emigration (both directions) per se, only that the “westernization” of certain strata in the so-called “Third World” (most of which was well civilized millennia before we, of European descent, came out of our caves, gave up our chipped stone spears and woad painted bodies) has the unfortunate tendency to give the western way of life and governance a gloss it most certainly does not deserve. And that “westernization” often induces the Orientalist perspective.

  3. AnneR
    May 19, 2020 at 10:40

    First, I would hope, rather as it seems Prof. Friedman does, that fewer people from the “Third World” want to emigrate to the “western world” (I suspect, certainly for the bourgeoisie of the “Third World,” many of those people have been schooled in “International” or “American” schools where they are generally presented with a very westernized view of the world).

    Second, I agree with Paul above, that the lack of mention of China as managing the epidemic, as it was initially, well is strange. And that blaming China for its spread is heinous because they knew not of what they were facing initially – and once they did, they were in touch with WHO. South Korea could hardly have been so quick off the blocks had China been deliberately dilatory in informing either its neighbors or WHO. (And China, although the major problem for wild life across the world – for trad “medicines” and exotic, thus expensive foodstuffs and items for wealth display, it is *not* the only one in East Asia by far.

    And I agree with Marcus Welby, Darcie and John R re: Obamacare and Obama himself (money grubbers extraordinaire that he and Michelle are) not to mention the other aspects of his admin: filled with Banksters and Wall Streeters; all too keen on supporting the war profiteers (Yemen, Libya and Syria).

    The notion that Obamacare was more than a slick facade to give the impression that he was actually doing anything to enable the poor and poverty stricken, the multiple jobs working classes to have really accessible healthcare is bizarre because far from the truth. Any medical coverage that relies on the medical insurance industry is going to be iniquitous, profit-driven and not a service for the people. (Moreover, many people were TOO poor to get even a basic coverage under this scheme – they were supposed to become included in an expanded Medicaid, but weren’t in several states. How could you be TOO poor for medical care coverage if it were truly aimed at providing everyone with full access to medical treatment, if not free at point of service, then truly affordable for even the poorest among us?)

    So here we are – blaming China for this pandemic rather than recognizing our own inadequate responses, paucity of supplies. And that blame comes not purely from the Red Faces either. I suppose we should be thankful that this disease does not have the death rate of the Black Death….

  4. Aaron
    May 18, 2020 at 20:30

    It’s an excellent point in this article, that there are disadvantages and unhealthy aspects to our way of life in the so-called first world. Paradoxically, I think the average first-world American is just quite unhealthy, and therefore poorly equipped to fight the virus/illness, and I do think that skews our stats to a worse degree than they would be if we took excellent care of ourselves.
    I agree with your point that the job of the government is to at least try in good faith to meet the needs of it’s citizens, and in that criterion, we are not first-world in any way, shape, or form, because the needs of the 99 percent are far from being met. It feels really bleak to me, I worry that it’s all gonna get much worse, it feels like there is the perfect storm of conditions for things to fall apart at the seams. I think people are getting so many mixed messages that they don’t know what to think/believe anymore.

  5. May 18, 2020 at 20:25

    The crux of the problem is not difficult to see- healthcare systems that are exclusively “for-profit” will always be insufficient, wasteful and corrupt in the face of genuine public health crises. It’s a no-brainer.

  6. Tony Kevin
    May 18, 2020 at 19:24

    Peter Duncan’s decision to stay in his home in Lombok is an interesting angke on this thesis. Tony Kevin.

  7. May 18, 2020 at 18:52

    Curious that the real ‘star performer ‘ ( I wonder why we need to rate countries in this way, rather than ‘what can we learn?’ from others) is not referenced at all. With China being the first country to experience COVID-19 , it is logical that there would be delays in identifying the deaths as 1) being similar and 2) being a pandemic. Once those 2 issues were evidenced and identified , China rapidly put in place the most comprehensive response to an epidemic ever seen. More than any other country (including my own – New Zealand) China put the health of its population before economics.

  8. May 18, 2020 at 18:40

    It is interesting to see what about this pandemic aligns and what about it does not align with the divide between socialism and capitalism.

  9. Marcus Welby
    May 18, 2020 at 15:29

    Funny how the author points out that the US is the ONLY rich country without national health care and then
    whitewashes Obamacare despite the fact that it was written by health insurers, that their profits have soared since, that medical costs are still responsible for 2/3 of personal bankruptcies, and that life expectancy in the US continues to fall.

    • DarcieD
      May 18, 2020 at 20:51

      Thank you! I also can’t stand the propaganda about the plutocrat puppet Obama.

    • John R
      May 18, 2020 at 21:10

      Thanks for highlighting the hypocrisy. There will be no criticism of Dem sacred cows – ever. They are exceptional !

    • May 19, 2020 at 14:44

      Funny, yes. Not ha-ha funny but gag-me funny. Obama’s latest performance for the braindead really made me gag. Why do people revere him so?

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