As the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the globe, the socioeconomic impact continues to ravage billions the world over. Despite a fatality rate of less than 5 per cent, movement restrictions necessitated by the highly contagious virus has caused millions of people to lose their livelihoods, families have seen their lifetime savings wiped out, children have dropped out of schools and in general turned our lives — as we knew it at the beginning of the year — upside down.
And as we count the losses of the pandemic, one of the foremost socioeconomic challenges of the world — inequality — has become a major focal point. In its recent report, titled The Cost of a Plate of Food, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Nobel Peace Laureate this year, brings out a stark contrast of how income differences across the world are creating havoc in the lives of those less fortunate to be born in a different geography.
In New York State, ingredients for a basic meal — perhaps a soup or a simple stew — costs just 0.6 per cent of someone’s income. In comparison, in South Sudan, a shopper would have to spend an astonishing 186 per cent of their income to do the same. “Such a difference brings into sharp focus the huge inequalities at play between those people in developing countries and others in more prosperous parts of the world,” the report states.
The economic wreckage brought about by the pandemic has touched every section of humanity. Recent media reports say about 1.5 million people in New York cannot afford to buy food and are dependent on food banks. In another part of the world, research published in the Food Policy journal suggests that a whopping 76 per cent of Indians do not have access to nutritious food — that’s three out of every four people!
Bearing brunt of the fallout
Everywhere around us, the socially and economically vulnerable sections of the populace are bearing the brunt of the fallout of the pandemic. As it is even before COVID-19 struck, nearly half the world’s population had scant access to health care and essential services, including social security measures that is so ingrained in the psyche of the developed West. This situation is likely to get far worse as the pandemic wipes away livelihoods and exposes the already inherent deficiencies in developing countries’ health care and other social security systems.
According to UNDP data, there are 55 hospital beds, more than 30 doctors and 81 nurses for every 10,000 people in developed countries. In comparison, in a less developed country, there are seven beds, 2.5 doctors and six nurses for the same number of people. “Even basics such as soap and clean water are luxuries for too many,” the UNDP says on its website.
According to the International Labour Organisation, half of working people could lose their jobs within the next few months, and the virus could cost the global economy $10 trillion. With such mega job losses, it is a foregone conclusion that workers in countries that do not provide unemployment allowance or insurance claims will suffer the most, which is, again true for most of the world, except the developed West.
Inequality bears its ugly fangs
But even within the developed West, inequality bears its ugly fangs. A recent report from Deloitte shows that Blacks and Hispanics in the US are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to work in occupations that have been disrupted by shutdowns imposed to slow the spread of the disease. “The likely outcome of this combination could be an increase in income inequality that is borne in large part by minority communities,” the report says.
“With more investment in the short term to support people from the fallout of COVID-19, and greater emphasis on building sustainable food systems in the long term as a foundation for access to affordable, nutritious food, we can break down the inequalities,” the WFP says in its report.
To rectify the situation, governments all around the world are taking steps of their own. However, saddled as everyone is with the second wave of the pandemic, the priority of saving lives is taking precedence over saving livelihoods. Thus, while the economic impact is getting on the backburner, it will need to be addressed sooner or later. A whole new set of policies will be needed to retrain populations to get new means of income in a post-pandemic world.