Covid-19 | Worsening inequality in the developing world: why we should say no to a ‘new normal’

As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, many of us living in wealthy countries are still struggling to get used to the ‘new normal’ of frequent regulatory changes that affect our freedom of movement and well-being. In developing countries, the negative effects of the pandemic move beyond the curtailing of movement to include increasing hunger, unemployment, and inequality. We can now witness some of these seemingly permanent changes that may take years or even decades to reverse, and we should not accept this as a ‘new normal’, write Shradha Parashari and Lize Swartz.

hunger food insecurity covid corona

Introduction

Over the past months, the world has come to experience the unthinkable as the Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the globe (Mahapatra, 2020). The overall outlook for world economy is bleak. According to Economist Intelligence Unit, as from March 17, global economic growth has slowed to just one percent—the lowest level of growth since the global financial crisis of 2008 (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020). The pandemic has affected both the developing and developed world. However, instances of hunger, unemployment and poor access to virus testing and treatment facilities are more prevalent in developing countries (World Food Programme Report, 2020).

Developed countries are taking important measures to protect their people from the Covid-19 virus and consequent slowdown of the economy and life in general by providing unemployment benefits, measures for food security, and privileges such as facilities enabling employees and entrepreneurs to work from home or at a safe distance from one another (Mahapatra, 2020). This is a rare case in the developing world, where governments face challenges in ensuring that tens of millions of people already on verge of starvation do not succumb to virus and its adverse economic consequences, which includes hunger (Dongyu, 2020).

Thus, the pandemic, popularly referred to as the ‘pandemic of inequality’ (Mahaptara, 2020), has exposed existing inequalities and has given rise to new inequalities. According to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres,

COVID-19 has highlighted growing inequalities. It has exposed the myth that everyone is in same boat, when the truth is, we all are floating in same sea; some are in superyachts, while others are clinging to drifting debris.

It is becoming clear that the pandemic is affecting the poor in both the developed and developing world more than wealthier groups, but it is especially the long-term effects of the pandemic in developing countries that remain a cause for concern. The pandemic has created a disruptive ‘new normal’ for everyone through government orders on social distancing and Covid-19 protection measures. Below are just some of the negative effects of this ‘new normal’ that support our argument that it should not be accepted as such.

First, for billions of poor persons, these guidelines are burdensome and impossible to comply with (Du et al., 2020). Poor informal workers in Asia, Africa and Latin America live in densely populated neighbourhoods with unreliable and shared access to water and sanitation facilities, making home quarantine or social distancing almost impossible. These workers lack access to bank accounts, insurance and secure employment that forces them to work on daily basis, defying lockdowns and creating an increased risk of Covid-19 transmission (Du et al., 2020). For them, a ‘new normal’ means not being able to work and meet basic needs.

Second, the hunger crisis is most evident in the central and western parts of Africa, where there has been a massive spike in the number of people facing food insecurity. Up to 90% of people living in Southern Africa are estimated to have become food insecure (World Food Programme Report, 2020). The closure of schools has further aggravated the hunger crisis in the developing world where children are highly dependent on meal programs at schools. For example, in Latin American countries and the Caribbean, the closure of schools during the pandemic has deprived around 85 million children of what is often the only (hot) meal they get daily (Dongyu Qu, 2020). This has led to surging hunger-related poverty during the pandemic. However, this is not the case in Global North, where school closures are simply an inconvenience for most parents.

Moreover, the lockdowns have left millions of workers jobless, especially the informal workforce in the developed and developing world (Daniyal et al., 2020). Workers in developed countries are still better off than those in the developing world as governments in US and Europe have pledged to pump trillions of dollars to support the unemployed workforce (TRT World, 2020). In contrast, the situation is grim in developing countries as informal workers are not covered by any social protection measures or proper employment contracts (TRT World, 2020). Millions of workers in Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and India have faced unemployment as the market remains shut due to the pandemic.

Why we should resist a ‘new normal’

As the pandemic drags on, many people in wealthier countries or those in developing countries with secure jobs or livelihoods, especially those whose lives are disrupted but not severely negatively affected, especially in economic terms, are getting used to the ‘new normal’. For many people, a ‘new normal’ means working from home, not visiting restaurants, not going on holidays outside of our countries, and having to wear a face mask. For millions people who are less fortunate, a ‘new normal’ means a loss of jobs and the inability to secure new employment, going to bed hungry, and working illegally with an exposed risk to the virus.

We have to reject this ‘new normal’ characterized by worsening living conditions and increasing economic inequality before it becomes seen as accepted and a permanent feature of life among poor people in developing and developed countries alike. The search for a vaccine and its global roll-out may take many months still. We have to start think beyond the end of the pandemic to ensure that its negative effects, particularly for people in developing countries, are urgently addressed. If we don’t, the consequences can be far-reaching.

References:

Dongyu Qu, “Coronavirus could worsen hunger in developing world”, World Economic Forum, accessed September 15, 2020. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-worsen-hunger-developing-world/

Economist Intelligence Unit, “Coronavirus what we expect for global growth”, accessed September 16, 2020. http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1849161968&Country=United%20States&topic=Economy&subtopic=Recent+developments

Jillian Du, Robin King and Radha Chanchani, “Tackling Inequality in cities is Essential for Fighting COVID-19”, accessed September 15, 2020. https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/04/coronavirus-inequality-cities

Richard Mahapatra, “COVID-19: The Pandemic of Inequality”, accessed September 15, 2020. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/economy/covid-19-the-pandemic-of-inequality-72442

Oxfam, “Half a billion people could be pushed into poverty by coronavirus, warns Oxfam”, accessed September 14, 2020. https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/half-billion-people-could-be-pushed-poverty-coronavirus-warns-oxfam

Sara Christensen, “Hunger in Developing Countries: Five Facts You Need to Know”, accessed September 16, 2020. https://borgenproject.org/hunger-in-developing-countries-five-facts/

Shoaib Daniyal et al., “As Covid-19 pandemic hits India’s daily-wage earners hard, some leave city for their home towns”, accessed September 16, 2020. https://scroll.in/article/956779/starvation-will-kill-us-before-corona-the-covid-19-pandemic-has-hit-indias-working-class-hard

TRT World. “Coronavirus hits jobs, Millions face unemployment and poverty”, accessed September 15, 2020. Retrieved from TRT World: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/coronavirus-hits-jobs-millions-face-unemployment-and poverty-35294

Tasfia Jahangir, “The Moral Dilemma of Slum Tourism”, accessed September 15, 2020. https://fundforeducationabroad.org/journals/moral-dilemma-slum-tourism/ 

World Food Programme, “COVID-19: Potential Impact on World’s Poorest People”, accessed September 15, 2020. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000114205/download/?_ga=2.261738637.121369336.1599543905-1508832003.1599543905

About the authors:

Shradha Parashari is an ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam alumna of the 2017-2018 batch. She is currently working as a Research and Operation Associate at PAD India.

Lize Swartz

 

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.

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