“Millions Who Are Already Hanging by a Thread”: The Global Repercussions of Covid-19
by John Whitehead
The Covid-19 pandemic threatens life in multiple ways. The virus not only has killed people directly—more than 400,000 to date—but has also worsened poverty and inequality. By disrupting the world economy, the pandemic has taken away many people’s livelihoods and harmed the poor.
The illness and the resulting economic hardships don’t fall equally on everyone but particularly hurt those already economically vulnerable. We should not forget these less obvious but very serious effects of Covid-19. The response to Covid-19 must include efforts to help those whose ability to support themselves has been seriously damaged since the pandemic began.
Fear of contracting Covid-19, along with the various quarantine and social distancing requirements imposed to prevent the virus’ spread, have meant curtailing travel, face-to-face interactions, and other ordinary business activities. All these conditions have presumably prevented infections, which is a great accomplishment.
A negative consequence of these conditions, however, is that businesses that could not successfully operate under such conditions have failed or had to reduce their operations. Enormous numbers of people have been put out of work, and global trade has been disrupted. The world is now facing a dramatic recession.
In the United States, the unemployment rate is currently 13.3%, the highest it has been since the Great Depression, with roughly 20 million people out of work. A recent survey indicates that 40% of American mothers with children under 12 currently lack access to sufficient food—more than triple the percentage of mothers reporting food insecurity in 2018.
Additionally, sidewalk advocates in the United States have reported that larger numbers of women than usual were entering those abortion facilities that remain open.
Black Americans have been hit especially hard, both by Covid-19 infections—a result partly of inadequate healthcare and a lack of jobs that allow working from home—and also by already having an unemployment rate twice that of white Americans.
Beyond the United States, the pandemic’s health and economic consequences severely threaten people in the developing world. Covid-19 will most hurt those already at the bottom of society. In Latin America, for example, poor housing, healthcare, and sanitation conditions among women and people of indigenous or African heritage mean these groups will suffer the pandemic’s worst effects. Many Latin American women are domestic workers who are at greater risk of unemployment and have less access to social safety nets. Refugees and displaced populations around the world, who may live in camps where social distancing isn’t possible, are also at heightened risk. People in developing countries suffering from malnutrition are more vulnerable to severe Covid-19 symptoms.
People falling sick from Covid-19 could create labor shortages and overwhelm already strained healthcare systems in developing countries. The global recession, as well as social distancing’s effects on service sector workers, risks lowering employment and incomes in developing countries. Also, the worsening economic situation in developed countries could mean that people in developing countries will not receive the same flow of money from relatives in the developed world.
Meanwhile, restrictions on movement intended to contain the virus’ spread could disrupt planting and harvesting by farmers, as well as their ability to sell their products. This situation will, in turn, limit general access to food.
In Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, GDP may have fallen by a third during a March to April lockdown. The number of Nigerians living in poverty might increase by 30 million as a result.
Meanwhile, East African nations are struggling against a locust plague that threatens food supplies; travel restrictions because of the pandemic, however, have disrupted the flow of necessary pesticides. In India, the pandemic has contributed to work disappearing in cities. As a result, about half a million people have left cities to walk long distances to their hometowns.
The current array of economic problems prompted United Nations officials to predict this spring that the global number of people without adequate access to food, which was 135 million in 2019, might almost double this year.
Also, in parts of Africa and the Middle East, the pandemic’s effect on food insecurity will only aggravate current effects of ongoing violent conflicts in those regions—a case of different threats to life combining to do still greater harm.
Further, this connection between economic and health crises and conflict is a reciprocal one: the various disruptions and tensions caused by Covid-19 may make conflict within and between societies more likely in the future. In South Africa, for example, hungry people have broken into food stalls and gotten into confrontations with police.
The combination of increased poverty and home confinement fostered by the pandemic may also increase intimate partner violence.
David Beasley, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), warned this April that the world faced “multiple famines of biblical proportions” if appropriate action was not taken. Dr. Arif Hussein, the chief economist for the WFP, commented that “Covid-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread.”
To be clear, none of this year’s dire economic events mean that measures such as lockdowns or social distancing are somehow unwise or unjustified. Preventing illness and deaths from Covid-19 is crucial and, as the poor and marginalized disproportionately suffer from the pandemic, such prevention also promotes social justice.
We should not, however, lose sight of the drastic consequences of even short-term economic disruptions. Aiding the world’s poor so they are safe from both illness and destitution is a necessary part of the Covid-19 response.
The WFP’s 2020 Global Food Crisis report warns that food insecure countries “may face an excruciating trade-off between saving lives or livelihoods or, in a worst-case scenario, saving people from the corona virus to have them die from hunger.” Policymakers and aid agencies must work to prevent such terrible options being the only ones available. The Food Crisis report emphasizes the need, despite the pandemic’s disruptions, to maintain humanitarian assistance flows to vulnerable groups and to increase efforts to ensure the continued processing, transportation, and sale of food in the neediest countries.
Those wishing to take political action on behalf of those threatened by Covid-19 and poverty could follow the lobbying efforts of Bread for the World. For those able to help by donating money, Catholic Relief Services does aid work in various developing countries in response to the pandemic. Staying informed is also valuable, as is taking a global view of human needs. The current pandemic demonstrates vividly how crises stretch across national borders and how issues such as illness, poverty, inequality, and conflict are connected.
For more of our posts on poverty, see:
How Euthanasia and Poverty Threaten the Disabled by Sarah Terzo
The Poor Cry Out for Justice, and We Respond with Legalized Abortion by Graciela Olivarez
Over 20 Million People Facing Starvation – And We Should Care! by Tony Magliano
For U.S. referendums that deal with all our issues, including several on poverty, see