How COVID-19 preys upon poverty — and will make it worse

(Photo source: Handout.)
(Photo source: Handout.)

In the wake of COVID-19, the world economy is set to contract 3 percent in 2020, according to recent estimates from the International Monetary Fund. 

As devastating as this may be, the long-term economic prospects are even worse, as a research analysis by IMF economists found that five years after a pandemic, economic inequities will only worsen. 

The hard numbers

Pandemics such as COVID-19 affect rich and poor alike, but the long-term impacts fall, for the most part, on the poor and the less-educated. 

The IMF points out that five of the 21st century’s notable disease outbreaks — SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola and Zika — all resulted in increasing inequality in the countries they impacted. 

In each case, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. 

Now, a pandemic is upon us that will create a deeper impact than the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

Inequalities at local, regional and global scales are being exacerbated by the disease — and the effects have been devastating: 

UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS: The 1.6 billion laborers in the “informal economy” — people working in unlicensed, black market and illegal jobs — will absorb much of the pain. 

These unpermitted workers comprise nearly half of the world’s total workforce. Already, remittances — money sent by immigrant workers, many undocumented, back to their families in their home countries — are down 20 percent this year. 

Yet amidst the gloomy outlook for migrant laborers, undocumented farm workers in the United States have ironically been classified as “essential workers.”

WOMEN: While women are in the minority in total coronavirus cases and deaths, they have been affected by a notable uptick in domestic violence resulting from stay-at-home orders that have been imposed around the globe.

The hard economics of the pandemic also have real effects on women, who make up nearly 60 percent of the “informal economy,” earn less and are at greater risk of falling into poverty. In general, the majority of the world’s older people are women. They’re more likely to live alone, and are at greater risk of isolation, as statistically women are less likely to have access to the Internet or mobile phones.

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE: They are among the most marginalized groups on the planet, and now indigenous people have been further cut off and isolated to keep out infection. 

But in some cases, this has not been enough to spare them. 

Nowhere has this been better documented than in the Navajo Nation of Arizona, with extremely high rates of infection and death, in a population already living in marginalized conditions. 

Navajo elders are a particularly high-risk group, and their deaths amount to incalculable losses in cultural knowledge and historical memory for the Navajo Nation.

HOMELESSNESS: A new study from Columbia University found that in the United States homelessness could increase by 45 percent.

That’s a huge spike in people without work and nowhere to shelter, a side-effect of the widespread economic shutdowns caused by lifesaving lockdowns, quarantines and shelter-in-place orders that are helping slow the spread of the wildly contagious coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Plague of inequity 

Even the balm of exposure to ecology and the natural environment — which requires access to the outdoors, to trees, to birds, to nature — is unequal, and magnified by COVID-19. 

Americans’ new-found fascination with backyard birding is a prime example. 

While birdwatching is ostensibly an equal-opportunity pastime, it is not very accessible to the urban poor, whose neighborhoods tend to have little habitat and few parks. 

In fact, “greener” neighborhoods are more often found in wealthier, privileged communities.

More acutely, the pandemic has highlighted the woeful inadequacy of the American healthcare system. 

The situation was bad before the pandemic, with 87 million Americans lacking insurance, or under-insured. 

Now, with tens of millions of newly unemployed people, the crisis is deepening. 

That’s because, unlike other developed countries, healthcare in the United States is tied to whether you have a job. 

Without universal healthcare, more Americans than ever are facing unpayable medical debts, whether from a COVID-19 infection or from any of numerous other conditions for which they may need medical treatment. 

Economic ‘scarring’ and the search for solutions

So what should be done?

On the global level, the economic lives of the majority of the world’s workers are threatened by what economists call “scarring” — long-term damage to the basic support systems of society. 

The IMF states that sick leave, and other unemployment and health benefits, are all important for dealing with the effects of the pandemic — “but particularly so for poorer segments of society who lack a savings cushion and are thus living hand-to-mouth.” 

In essence, some sort of global “New Deal” should be in the works, they say.

And some critics assert that the pandemic represents a critical opportunity to change problematic healthcare and economic systems. 

They believe that there should not be a return to “normal” — and that there is not necessarily a “normal” to return to. 

Reform vs. revolution

One major source of friction is the difference between those who want to help each other directly, and those who wish to invest effort into reform of public systems, with ramped-up government aid. 

Mutual aid networks — a concept born out of the writings of Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist — have blossomed, with myriad groups involving tens of thousands of volunteers. 

The benefits of mutual-aid networks are real: No red tape, no qualifications to receive aid — just “pods” and groups helping each other, the most vulnerable, the needy, the forgotten. 

Several mutual-aid groups have even formally organized themselves into actual organizations with legal status.

These include Invisible Hands, a New York-based organization that signed up 12,000 volunteers and raised $57,000 for a free weekly subsidy program providing households with staples such as eggs, milk and bread.

It has since gone from ad hoc status to formal registration as a nonprofit organization, but is struggling to fulfill the enormous demand for its services.

In Minnesota, COVIDSitters, which provides childcare to health workers. became a nonprofit organization so as to apply for grants. The organization has also helped set up 30 other “sitter” agencies through medical schools around the nation.

Those who are working on and in government to some extent see mutual aid groups as helpful, but temporary. 

Mutual-aid organizing is also gaining stature as a tool for those who want to reduce the role of government in daily life. 

But the scale of need around the world may dwarf the ability of ad hoc mutual-aid organizations to mount a comprehensive response.

Globally, major non-governmental groups such as the International Labor Organization, the United Nations, the IMF and others want to confront the spiraling economic crisis caused by the pandemic — a new “Great Depression” for the 21st century — with an unprecedented investment in human services. 

It will take, however, widespread participation from member countries and humanist organizations of all sizes and shapes in the months and years to come. 

Sources: The New YorkerUnited NationsThe GuardianSan Diego Union TribuneAudubon Society (advocacy group), International Monetary Fund, Los Angeles Times

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