COVID-19: Link between migrants, development goals becomes more clear

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic effects the unorganised work force the most: Research work, policy measures needed to quantify their socio-economic loss

By M Umanath
Published: Tuesday 23 June 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak and the consequent lockdowns around the world have crippled socio-economic activities of poor people, especially the massive labour force working in the unorganised sector.

For the past few months, COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns have hit the global economy, including developed countries.

Migrant workers, including children and the elderly in their families have left for their villages and home towns — with inadequate cash reserves — from urban areas, sparking a reverse migration crisis.

It is uncertain whether they will return to cities even after the pandemic is over. Social-distancing has become a new way of life.

While it is true the extended curfew had the potential to contain the spread of the virus, it has devastated the livelihoods of ordinary daily wage and construction workers in urban areas and farmers and landless labourers in rural areas.

Who is most vulnerable to COVID-19?

Daily wage workers in any sector have been the most vulnerable to economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic. They do not have any additional benefits such as savings, insurance, employment provident fund, etc from employers.

The workers are less likely to have formal work arrangements and decent working conditions, inadequate social security and no voice through effective representation by trade unions and similar organisations.

Such vulnerable employment groups exist in about 45 per cent of the total workforce across the world. This is higher for least developed countries (73 per cent) and South Asian countries (70 per cent).

Similarly, India accounts for about 90 per cent of the total workers under the unorganised sector, of which 150 million are farmers and 50 million are agricultural and non-agricultural workers. Forty-eight million of these are self-employed in rural areas, while about 55 million are self-employed and 20 million are daily wage earners in urban areas.

Once the lockdown was announced, all workers in the informal sector were rendered unemployed, resulting in the reduction in affordability and accessibility to food items.

The pandemic effected women and children belonging to families of the unorganised work force. They are, in particular, more likely to suffer from lack of food and malnutrition. The pandemic resulted in less care for women and children, given the diversion of resources towards health-related concerns.

Similar problems have been reported during earlier disease outbreaks, including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Changes in food supply chain, dietary patterns

The debilitating impact of the pandemic on the dietary pattern of informal sector workers could be gauged from two different aspects.

First, the loss of employment and income resulted in less accessibility of food, water, sanitation and shelter. The pandemic, thus, reduced the intake of nutritious and healthy food among informal workers and migrants.

Second, a collapse in the food supply chain has resulted in farmers and traders being unable to move food items from farms to the ultimate consumer because of constraints, including barriers on vehicle movement and transportation at village and regional levels.

This adversely affects the food supply chain, making the poor more vulnerable to hunger. As almost all the countries are affected by COVID-19, there are difficulties in the import of food products, especially pulses and edible oils, considered major sources for protein and fat respectively.

Barriers in transportation are expected to result in unavailability of and higher prices for food products even after the pandemic is over.

Change in food supply chain affects existing dietary patterns, leading to nutritional insecurity, particularly huge reduction in supply of micronutrients and vitamins, impacting improvement of malnutrition problems at both the individual and country level.

For example, due to loss of income and reduced food supply, nutritious food such as vegetables, fruits and livestock products like milk, meat, eggs and fish become more expensive.

Informal workers will, thus, tend to buy less of such food.

When staple food items such as rice, wheat, pulses etc, become more expensive, people tend to reduce their consumption of these essential commodities without any option to substitute food items rich in micro-nutrients and vitamins.

Ultimately, the result is a decline in the quality of diets.

Malnutrition problems before COVID-19

Although there is significant progress in reducing poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition in the past four decades across the world, under-developed and developing countries still grapple with higher level of malnutrition resulting in underweight, stunting, wasting and anaemia.

Roughly 800 million people are undernourished globally of which 780 million are in low-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to a 2015 Food and Agriculture Organization report.

Almost half the pregnant women in India are anaemic (iron deficient), while around 33 per cent of women have a low body mass index. A substantial number of children under five years are stunted (38 per cent), wasted (21 per cent) and underweight (35.7 per cent).

The cumulative effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown on the dietary pattern, malnutrition issues and poverty levels among informal workers can, thus, be seen.

COVID-19 is expected to aggravate these problems further in future and will prove to be a major hurdle in the way of achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of reduced poverty, hunger and malnutrition problems by 2030.

Measures to take post-COVID-19

It is needless to say that COVID-19 containment measures have affected food production, trade, supply chains and consequently food and nutritional security especially among daily wage earners and their families.

It is difficult to find solid research work addressing linkages between food and nutrition security and type of labour in general and unorganised labour in particular. There has also not been any specific development programme for the welfare of the labours working under the unorganised sector in developing countries, including India.

All these clearly call for proper precautionary measures and policy options to face the consequences of the aftermath of COVID-19.

Since the economy of several under-developed and developing countries are largely dependent on the informal sector, it is crucial to quantify socio-economic loss in terms of their employment, income, diets, nutritional deficiencies and health.

This will subsequently enable appropriate policy measures that will, in turn, show significant progress in achieving SDGs.

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