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Coronavirus and poverty: we can’t fight one without tackling the other

by Keetie Roelen

A pandemic like COVID-19 lays bare structural inequalities across the world with the poorest and most marginalised bearing the brunt of the virus’ many implications. Adjusting to new work routines, school closures, social distancing and self-isolation pose challenges to us all. With many of us glued to screens to receive regular updates about numbers of new infections and deaths, about what governments are doing to respond to the crisis, about where to stock up on toilet rolls, and about how we can keep ourselves and others healthy and safe, anxiety is rife. However, implications compound for those living in or at risk of poverty, and this is true across the globe.

In this post, I will draw on some of the excellent opinion pieces and news stories out there that highlight the plight of those living in poverty and draw out some of the main messages.

First, the coronavirus is likely to cause widespread hunger.

The decreased demand for services as a result of the pandemic and the subsequent tightening of income for workers delivering those services, makes it harder for families to meet their food needs. This is particularly the case for those who are already living on tight budgets. This piece in the New York Times really drives home the implications of greater economic uncertainty with parents in the US having to forego meals in order to feed their children. Free meal programmes offer a vital lifeline for many families and children.

At the same time, the provision of free meals through school has come to a halt in many countries, leaving children at risk of going hungry. This article in The Conversation discusses how children across the world – with examples from India, US and UK – rely on school meals for their daily food intake. With many schools around the world now closed or soon to be closed, many children will miss out on those meals. Without extra help or government intervention, children living in families that were already struggling to make ends meet or that are facing economic hardship as a result of the pandemic will be at risk of going hungry.

Second, people will adopt coping mechanisms that will make the negative impact of the pandemic last well beyond the immediate health crisis.

It is well-known that health shocks – and the costs associated with securing health care or paying for funerals – constitute a key factor that lock or push people into poverty. Research by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) on poverty dynamics in many countries in the Global South (including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, the Philippines) found the immediate need for cash leads to people selling assets that are vital to earning an income (such as livestock) or that they borrow money from loan sharks against extremely high interest rates. The negative consequences of doing so will be felt long after the pandemic is behind us.

These concerns are not limited to people living in poverty in the Global South. In the US, as highlighted in this piece in Time, many people on low-income jobs do not have health insurance and do not get paid sick leave, not only leaving them at risk of (deeper) poverty but also at greater risk of contracting (and spreading) the virus. Testing, medical help and the ability to self-isolate becomes a privilege for those who can afford it, which is diametrically opposite to what society needs right now.

Third, those living in informal settlements or without a home will be hit even harder.

Living in close proximity to each other – such as in urban slum areas – prevents any opportunity for anyone to observe social distancing, making such areas contagion ‘hotspots’. As my colleague Annie Wilkinson at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) argues, the implications for people living in densely populated settlements and largely unsanitary conditions should receive far more attention in thinking about adequate policy responses.

In the UK, charities have warned that the lack of support for those living on the streets constitutes a ticking time bomb. As noted in this piece in the Guardian, many shelters have stopped accepting new people to avoid overcrowding. Matters are likely to get worse as many winter shelters will close at the end of March.

Given the enormity of the current crisis and the far-reaching effects on people’s lives, particularly for those already in or at risk of poverty, the call for governments to implement a Universal Basic Income (or a form thereof) is growing.

The provision of cash can shield people against the harshest economic consequences, allowing to keep themselves fed, to obtain basic medical care and to avoid falling into poverty. This piece in Al Jazeera argues the urgency for such a policy measure in countries across the world, while this post on the Brookings site also offers some lessons to take into account in doing so.

Many countries have already started taking action. For example, Hong Kong and Singapore are providing one-off payments, Peru is offering four months advance payment on old age pensions and Brazil is including 1 million additional beneficiaries in its conditional cash transfer scheme. Ugo Gentilini from the World Bank offers rolling updates on these efforts on his Twitter feed.

As all our lives are being turned upside down by current developments, we must make sure that the notion that ‘we are all in this together’ does not become a trope that allows for ignoring the wide disparities in our societies and the fact that this virus has far more adverse consequences for some than it has for others. Thinking about vulnerability should go beyond health risks and take into account people’s abilities to respond to such risks and adhere to measures in the first place.

Borrowing and adding to a closing statement from here: A failure to help people living on low incomes, in poverty or without secure and quality living conditions to prevent and treat COVID-19 might come back to hurt us all in the end.

UPDATE: Check out our NEW podcast episode on how people living in poverty are affected by coronavirus worldwide.

2 comments on “Coronavirus and poverty: we can’t fight one without tackling the other

  1. Pingback: Episode #2: Coronavirus and poverty, and how we are not all equal in the face of a pandemic – Poverty Unpacked

  2. Pingback: Coronavirus, mental health and poverty: a ‘triple whammy’ – Poverty Unpacked

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