A priority in a pandemic: The vulnerable first

The global crisis has put a focus on aiding those most at risk, even outside one’s own society. The uplift in thought should not end when the COVID-19 crisis does.

A vendor wears a mask at a market in the old quarter Sanaa, Yemen.
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The global crisis has put a focus on aiding the most vulnerable, even outside one’s own society. This uplift in thought should not end when the COVID-19 crisis does.

One result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a shift in perception of the weakest and most vulnerable in society. The people seen most at risk – those who are older, homeless, or incarcerated – get special attention. Health workers on the front lines, as well as employees in “essential” industries, receive priority in protection. Food banks are doing double-time in deliveries to people who are laid off and hungry.

In the United States, after the money in a federal rescue package went mainly to big businesses, Congress quickly refocused on aid to small businesses. Shake Shack, a large and well-capitalized restaurant chain, even returned its $10 million loan after a public outcry.

“Until every restaurant that needs it has had the same opportunity to receive assistance, we’re returning ours,” the company’s executives said.

On a global level, perhaps the greatest gap between strong and weak is between the U.S. and a tiny country on the Arabian peninsula. Yemen is not only the poorest country in the Middle East but, as a result of an ongoing five-year war, it has the world’s worst food crisis. Nearly half of its children under 5 are stunted from malnutrition, according to the World Food Program. Around 80% of its 24 million people require foreign aid, or what is now the world’s largest humanitarian operation.

On April 10, Yemen reported its first case of the coronavirus. With few resources to combat it and a shattered health system, one United Nations official said COVID-19 in Yemen “could spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than in many other countries.” One impact could be a shutdown of aid to Yemen.

Such a possibility has set off an alarm in Washington despite its urgent focus on Americans. On April 22, the State Department told Reuters the U.S. is preparing a “substantial contribution” for Yemen to deal with the coronavirus. At the same time, a group of international companies announced it will donate tens of thousands of testing kits and medical equipment to the country.

Around the world during this crisis, examples abound of this crisis evoking new commitments to tender compassion and unexpected generosity. The crisis will end. Yet the uplift in thought – that even the most vulnerable anywhere in the world, like the citizens of Yemen, are entitled to peace and healing – should not.

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