THE CONTEXT: Before the coronavirus, inequality was already increasing in many parts of the developing world. But the pandemic is going to greatly heighten existing economic and social inequalities. In this article, we’ll discuss the role of Covid-19 in heightening inequality in the world and how to tackle them.
- The late microbiologist and environmentalist, René Dubois, famously articulated that every civilisation created its own diseases and epidemics. Into the eighth month of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, one is convinced about what ours would be: Inequality.
- And it took a pandemic to bring this out. It is now being popularly mentioned as the ‘pandemic of inequality’. Nobody is sure when this defining point of the pandemic would be declared over.
- In the last fortnight, global conversations on the pandemic revolved around its impacts on hunger, poverty and inequality, making the world slide again into a time where it had started talking about various global goals like the Millenium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
- Recent estimates and analysis show that the pandemic is impacting the already poor more, whether they are in developed or developing countries.
António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, while delivering the 2020 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, said:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has played an important role in highlighting growing inequalities. It exposed the myth that everyone is in the same boat. While we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts, while others are clinging to the drifting debris”.
Role of Covid-19 in widening inequalities
Loss of job& pay
- The pandemic has increased inequality between workers. Lockdown policies enacted by many governments to suppress the spread of the virus have particularly hurt the working poor in developing countries.
- For these workers, who depend on a daily wage and casual work, the inability to travel to their places of work has led to a significant loss of earnings, with no protection and high levels of insecurity about the future of their livelihoods.
- Consider a street vendor selling vegetables in the streets of Delhi. As the pandemic hit India and the government issued stay at home orders, the street vendor suddenly found herself out of living. In contrast, for the professionals who are able to work from home, the pandemic has had a more limited effect on their earnings.
- The vast majority of workers in developing countries are in informal jobs, without access to the types of support that workers in rich countries get from their governments, such as furloughing schemes.
- The pandemic is contributing to an acceleration in technological change, helping certain businesses stay open digitally and enabling many people to work from home who were previously unable to.
- Those countries whose citizens have access to the internet and are well educated will gain from the move to online technologies such as Zoom for virtual meetings.
Widening gender gap
- While both men and women must stay at home due to lockdown policies, women are more likely to take care of children and domestic chores, leading to an unequal distribution of household duties within the family.
- Women across the world are much more likely to hold jobs in retail and hospitality where remote working is less possible, and which are particularly hit by lockdown-induced job losses.
- The closure of schools and day nurseries may force women to withdraw from employment. In times of economic stress, girls are often the first to be withdrawn from school (or to miss classes) as they substitute for working mothers.
- Coronavirus has hit at a time of weak levels of international cooperation. A major example of this is the ongoing trade war between the US and China, as well as numerous statements by the United States President Donald Trump that have undermined important international bodies like the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization.
- The wider trend towards economic nationalism, with countries like the US and UK pulling out of major trade blocs, will be accentuated by the pandemic.
- Greater protectionism in developed countries shuts developing countries out of their richer markets, leaving limited opportunities to gain from world trade.
Access to the vaccine
- Access to the Covid-19 vaccine, once it is developed, will determine the scale and speed of recovery from the pandemic. This is likely to differ across rich and poor countries, further accentuating inequality.
- The WHO has warned of vaccine nationalism where the distribution of vaccines is mostly given to citizens of rich countries, which are pouring billions of dollars into this research.
- We have already witnessed huge fights to procure the necessary personal protective equipment for healthcare workers on the front line of the pandemic.
Impact of Covid-19 on Children
- According to the recently released UN Report on the Impact of Covid-19 on Children, almost 24 million children could drop out or not have access to school next year due to the economic impact of Covid-19.
- An estimated 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of pandemic.
- The economic loss might reach 16,000 USD of lost earnings over a student’s lifetime, translating over time into 10 trillion USD of lost earnings globally.
- 188 countries have imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth.
- More than two-thirds of countries have introduced a national distance learning platform, but among low-income countries the share of distance learning is only 30%.
- Rising malnutrition is expected as 368.5 million children across 143 countries rely on school meals for a reliable source of daily nutrition.
Other facts from different sources/reports to highlight growing inequalities
- Oxfam, a non-profit operating across the world, has estimated that there are 121 million more people on the brink of starvation today due to mass unemployment, disruption to food production and supplies.
- In 2019, the WFP assisted 97 million people, which was a record at that point of time. Currently, it assists 138 million people. A severe hunger crisis is precipitating due to the pandemic, among those who were already surviving on subsistence level or with external support.
- According to the WFP, the number of hungry in the countries where it operates would increase to 270 million by the end of this year. This will be an increase of 82 per cent from the level immediately before the pandemic erupted.
- It is first time since 1990, when the concept of human development measurement was adopted across the world, that the human development measure would come down in 2020.
- Over time, economic growth has led to reduction in income inequality among countries. But within countries, inequality in income has, in fact, increased — by four per cent in Gini Coefficient (a statistical measure to gauge wealth distribution) since 1990.
- This global increase in inequality was driven by widening inequality in China, India, Indonesia and the United States.
- A Food and Agriculture Organization assessment shows that COVID-19 may cause an increase in each country’s Gini by two per cent.
- In this case, the number of poor will additionally increase by 35-65 per cent. In India alone, some 400 million people would slip into poverty due to the impacts of the pandemic. And these are mostly workers in informal sectors. This again shows how disproportionate the pandemic’s impacts have been.
- Recently concluded high-level political forum also highlighted that: First, the world has slipped on its commitments for SDGs. Second, inequality will further widen, thus making it very difficult to garner global support to fund the development agenda.
- To avoid the outcome of the pandemic, progress on three fronts is required : Information, Solidarity and
- It is critical that education is at the heart of international solidarity efforts, from debt management and stimulus packages to global humanitarian appeals and official development assistance.
- Now is the time to step up international solidarity for children and humanity— and to lay the foundations for a deeper transformation of the way we nurture and invest in our world’s youngest generation.
- India as a lower-middle-income country needs to use education as an equalizer for its widespread socioeconomic inequalities. Focus on increasing education budget in New Education Policy budget and decreasing digital divide are welcome steps to achieve this goal.
- Inclusive access to finance to strengthen and expand rural supply chains is also crucial. Banking products and financial services must be made available to poor populations on priority basis.
- The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has recently launched a new comprehensive Covid-19 Response and Recovery Programme to provide an agile and coordinated global response aimed at ensuring access to nutritious food for everyone.
Whether the pandemic’s effect on inequality will be felt for many years to come will depend on whether governments in developing countries take concerted action – both in the immediate future, in providing large-scale income-support programmes for the working poor, and in the long term, in educating their workers to prepare for a more digitally advanced world and building the infrastructure for it. It will also depend on how the international community can act in a unified way to provide much-needed debt relief and finance for low-income countries.
Question to Ponder
- The COVID‐19 pandemic has played an important role in highlighting growing inequalities. It exposed the myth that everyone is in the same boat. While we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts, while others are clinging to the drifting debris. Comment.
- Covid‐19 crisis has derailed the development process of the world and only a sustained innovative and coordinated effort can help the world overcome this crisis. Discuss the steps taken by India in this regard.
- Covid‐19 is now being popularly mentioned as the ‘pandemic of inequality’. Discuss the reasons for this and suggest some measures to reduce inequalities.
- While one part of the population enjoys work and nutritional security, health insurance and housing of globally acceptable standards, others survive at the edge of unprotected and uncertain work, abysmal housing without clean water and sanitation, and no assured public health care. Can we resolve to correct this in post‐COVID India? Suggest how.