The Covid-19 Pandemic Should Be Understood As A Health, Humanitarian And Development Emergency

The coronavirus pandemic should not only be understood as a health emergency, but also a humanitarian and developmental one as well. United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammad emphasizes, “these emergencies are compounding existing inequalities… In advanced economies, we’re seeing higher rates of mortality among already marginalized groups. And in developing countries, the crisis will hit vulnerable populations even harder.”

The inequalities stemmed in most societies have been further exacerbated since Covid-19 has halted the global economy. The International Labour Organization estimates the much-needed lockdown measures will worsen poverty and vulnerability among the world’s 2 billion informal workers, warning 1.6 billion are in immediate danger of having their livelihood destroyed.

The World Bank has estimated 50 million people could fall back into extreme poverty. Prolonged lockdowns have trapped multigenerational families in cramped spaces, and instances of domestic violence have risen dramatically.

It is evident the coronavirus does not respect humanmade borders, and it has brought societal vulnerabilities and fragilities into plain sight. Amina Mohammad suggests that people are becoming aware of the “massive underinvestment in health and social protection; massive global and local inequalities” and the “erosion of democratic norms.”

Globally, countries have taken measures to stem some of these problems to combat the virus; however, significant multilateral efforts must be taken to reduce such inequalities and reach poverty reduction targets.

Global Poverty Rates Expected to Rise

Global gains that have taken over two decades to achieve have been wiped out in weeks by the virus, leaving 2 billion informal workers at risk of abject poverty. Millions who have ‘climbed up the ladder’ will see themselves fall back.  As the world heads for a recession, the World Bank forecasts global poverty rates are expected to rise for the first time since 1998.

The financial institution believes the ‘developing’ world will be hardest hit, as Sub Saharan Africa will see its first recession in over 25 years resulting in half of all jobs on the continent to be lost. South Asia is expected to experience its worst economic performance in 40 years. The informal workers will be especially at risk as most will not have access to healthcare and impoverished countries are unable to provide unemployment assistance.

Once the virus is eradicated, which is unlikely to happen soon, the financial shock most will suffer will linger beyond that. According to a New York Times report, countries such as Bangladesh have spent heavily over the past few years on building their education and health services, which they will no longer be able to fund.

Approximately 1 million of the countries garment workers lost their jobs overnight, due to global lockdowns. In India, a growing economic hub, millions of migrant and informal workers were left unemployed and/or homeless overnight. Remittances to countries like Mexico, the Philippines, and Pakistan have dried up, as people lose their jobs and can no longer send money home.

According to an estimate made by the U.N. World Food Program, by the end of 2020, over 265 million people globally could be on the brink of starvation, almost double the current rate of crisis-level food insecurity.

According to a 2019 U.N. Development Programme report, in 1990, 36% of the global population lived on less than $1.90 a day. Figures in 2016 show the number had been reduced to less than 10%. Experts worry about the progress regarding poverty rates since the ’90s may be reversing.

Anti-poverty programs will be cut as governments practice trade protectionism and struggle with stagnating economic growth. Around 90 countries have already asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance, and ‘well-off’ countries currently are unable to provide sufficient aid or forgive debt due to their economic constraints.

Lockdown Realities

Poverty and illness are intertwined, as poverty is a huge driver of disease, and health is intimately tied to economic wellbeing. A person who may have recently climbed out of poverty will be sent back in with illness and medical bills. The poor and unfortunate cannot afford to stockpile goods, increasing their exposure to the coronavirus every time they leave the house.

Multigenerational families living together in cramped spaces, a commonality in most developing countries, will be further at risk as younger members going to work will be a grave threat to their older relatives. Primary breadwinners may also lose their jobs as they are unable to work from home due to poor internet connections and confined quarters.

Lockdowns and quarantines have been essential for combating the virus, with many countries having to put their economic troubles aside to get ‘back to normal’. However, as lockdowns extend, the most vulnerable have been left frustrated in destitute conditions, and the most at risk are people trapped in abusive households, especially women.

In hospitals and caregiving homes, women have been on the frontline spending hours combating the virus, only to go home to an even more miserable circumstance of facing abuse from their partner. A reported commonality in some domestic violence cases is of women saying their ‘usually loving’ partners physically or verbally assaulted them, to release bent up anger or frustration. The U.N. reports a dramatic spike in global domestic violence cases since lockdowns began, with support services in some countries overwhelmed as their number of cases has doubled.

Numbers of people infected with the virus will gradually slow as countries prolong strict measures, however, what has come to light are details of millions around the world who will continue to suffer in their very own household. As governments proceed forward, policies regarding the promotion and protection of women and the vulnerable should be a top priority, to overcome the underlying domestic issues millions face.

One for All, And All for One.

Many countries are exhausting their last remaining resources and will be pushed to the brink of collapse due to a phenomenon originating in a foreign land. Therefore, no one country will be able to eradicate this disease alone. Multilateral efforts are needed to ensure the virus can be contained and eventually eradicated, in a globalized system where we have witnessed how easily pandemics can occur.

There is a clear contradiction between a phenomenon that recognizes no borders and political systems that use borders as defense mechanisms. Borders have closed even among countries that have enjoyed free movement for decades such as the Schengen Area. Globally, citizens in foreign territories were summoned back, and thousands on the move have been left in legal and social limbo. Border and trade restrictions have caused significant economic problems, especially for developing countries relying heavily on foreign trade.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has called for temporary debt standstills, debt relief programs, waiving off interest payments, and have demanded the easing of unilateral sanctions on countries such as Iran and Zimbabwe. A Marshall Law type program, where European economies post World War II rebounded with big-spending packages, could be advocated. A similar program for health recovery, however, might not be possible as major economic hubs have suffered majorly during the lockdowns and will be focused locally.

A New Normal

Everyone has an equal chance of being infected with Covid-19, but not everyone will have an equal chance of surviving the disease and the economic toll associated with it. The world has changed over the past few months, and with that, policies and the political priorities governments have must change as well. The coronavirus has been responsible for death and despair, however, if played right, the pandemic can precipitate rapid social and economic change unseen since the World Wars.

The global crisis, and the monumental governmental responses to it, should encourage countries to accelerate efforts to reach the 17 globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, to eradicate poverty and create a more equal and peaceful world for all. Never again in our lifetimes may nation-states be in a better position to make changes in a globalized system focused primarily on economic gains, rather than human security.

It is necessary for nations to come together like never before, and to make sure 2020 will not be remembered for being the worst year in modern history. Rather, historians should be able to point to the changes that will be made this year as a stepping stone for a more equal egalitarian world.


Zaryab Makhdoom


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