Jeffrey Sachs: 'No country should have to choose between paying its debt or fighting the COVID-19 pandemic'

Posted 26 August, 2020

No country should be forced to choose between its debt obligations and public health measures to combat COVID-19, says economist Jeffrey Sachs.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold the American expert on poverty and economic development has warned that its impact on the world's economics is going to be deep and likely persistent,

“Finances loom large over this whole story,” he said during a virtual lecture with Patrick Walsh, professor of International Development Studies at UCD School of Politics and International Relations.

“Poor countries have lost export earnings and so can't finance their own ongoing debt serving. They've had a suspension of debt but the pile of debt is rising.

“Countries are going deeper and deeper into debt... [and now] there are basic questions... like how do governments keep continuing to provide public services in the context of very sharply reduced public revenue?

“No country should be saying 'I'd love to have community health workers or that I'd love to do more testing but we just can't afford it'. That would be the most horrendous mistake of all.”

Speaking at the first day of the week-long virtual 2020 Universitas 21 (U21) Health Science Group Meeting being hosted by University College Dublin, Professor Sachs said the COVID-19 crisis had serious implications not only for public health, but for economics, social stability, and national and global politics.

Addressing the USA's decision to withdraw from the World Health Organisation at the height of the pandemic, a move he described as one of “raw and cruel nationalism”, the Columbia University academic said the act had put a halt to any discussion on mobilising funds to help countries that are spiralling into debt due to the virus.

“There are crisis spending issues such as humanitarian relief and public health measures that are urgent, as well as the financing of a vaccine and the cost of its implementation... [but] we're going to need debt relief over the long-term.

“Basically, we need the International Monetary Fund to be playing the kind of role that central banks play... the lender of last resort and the buy of government debt when necessary in order to ensure that basic services can be met.

“Use money now from anywhere to feed people, to make sure basic needs are met, and to ensure that public health measures undertaken,” he added.

Over 300 delegates are expected to attend this year's U21 Health Science Group, which is exploring the theme of ' One Health: A Collaborative Approach to Healthcare'. The event is an opportunity for academics and researchers to collaborative, exchange information, and share resources on global health issues.

Opening the conference, Professor Andrew Deeks, UCD President said the theme of 'One Health' was very relevant “in a year when healthcare professionals and scientists all over the world are working together to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“UCD has risen to the challenge posed by the pandemic in the work carried out by our staff across a broad range of activities including treatment trials and mechanistic studies with our hospital partners, COVID-19 genomic sequencing, testing for COVID-19 at the National Virus Reference Laboratory and through the work carried out by the UCD COVID-19 Contact Tracing Centre and training facility.”

Later echoing this sentiment, Professor Sachs said now more than ever universities and researchers had a role to play in tackling the effects of COVID-19.

“The role of universities and experts is to focus on practical solutions to problems. I'm living with an anti-science President in the United States... [and] there's been so much confused, often deliberate, in public policy that in we've ended up in a disaster in the US during this epidemic.

“We need to find ways to weigh in through evidence and science and rigour, and say these are things that can be done.”

The U21 Health Science Group meeting continues all this week at UCD, and its list of programmes and events, includes presentations, live panel discussions and interactive workshops with speakers from all over the world, is available here.

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations