Where does the world stand 4 months into COVID-19?

It has learnt at a deadly cost that inequality in development has the power to make a health emergency into a long-term problem  

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 30 April 2020

Spaniards take their children out after relaxation of lockdown. Photo: @NorbertElekes
Four months into the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the world is at the crossroads. The SARS-COV-2 virus has continued to appear in new places, affecting thousands every day, thus making more countries expand their lockdown.

On the other hand, populations already under lockdown for over six weeks, hope to be out of it at the earliest, to resume economic activities as millions have already lost livelihoods.

And, as they get ready to come out of this unprecedented situation, the world is witnessing another challenge: a never-before-experienced exodus of people from economically-active urban areas to their already distressed rural homes.

They are also carrying back the threat of COVID-19 to areas untouched till now. In May, the pandemic will show its other deadly side.

On April 26, Spain allowed children under 14 years to venture out, though with stringent guidelines.

They can go out for an hour in a day; they must be accompanied by parents or guardians; they must remain within one kilometre of their residences; and they must adhere to social distancing mechanisms.

They will only stroll as parks and playgrounds remain closed. Still, as television channels beamed, there were smiling faces. As one parent said, after a lockdown of 40 days, little things like feeling the fresh air on the face was like a rebirth.

Spain, a country known for tourism, has suffered 24,543 deaths and 239,639 infections as of April 30, 2020. The country is finally limping back to normalcy.

From May 2, adults would also be allowed to exercise and stroll outside. The epidemiological curve has been flattened in Spain, and would soon be squashed, going by the experts.

Four months into the pandemic, all the top five countries in terms of infection and human mortality are on their way to loosen the lockdown.

Starting from China — the origin of SAR-COV-2 — to the United States, Germany, Italy and Spain, there are plans now to allow normal human movement, though in a staggered way. The US — having the highest number of cases of COVID-19 — has also announced exit plans for lockdowns in states.

In Germany, the government has formed a 26-member group of philosophers, scientists, historians, theologians and legal experts to start the process of lifting the lockdown. But it has been cautious to do so in one go.

Rather, its strategy is to gauge social and economic impacts of a long lockdown and how communities would endure it. India has allowed certain business activities with low staff attendance and the Union government has opened its offices. Inter-state migrant workers and students have been allowed to move to their respective states.

Anti-lockdown protests

Certainly, our endurance with the pandemic has taken a different curve. As governments discussed these exit plans sensing the good news of the infection finally peaking, there were developments that indicated how challenging the situation would be in the post-lockdown period.

There were protests across the world against lockdowns, with a common demand: restore business to save lives. In India, stranded migrant workers in Gujarat and Maharashtra took to streets, protesting non-availability of food and basic facilities and demanded a return to their states.

By this time, key states like Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Bihar and Jharkhand had already put in place elaborate plans to not only bring the workers back but also to create quarantine facilities for them before they could enter villages.

Barring the ruling party, most other political parties supported lifting the lockdown and to allow economic activities, though with restrictions necessary for curtailing the infection.

In the United States, there were anti-lockdown protests across the states. Reportedly, these protests were encouraged by President Donald Trump, who is staunchly against a national lockdown.

In the Polish-German border area of Saxony on April 29, commuter workers protested against the over six-week lockdown. It is estimated that some 10,000 Poles travel to neighbouring German towns every day for work but have been kept away due to the lockdown. “Let us work, let us home,” read a protester’s banner.

South Africa reported food riots in West Cape areas and Johannesburg. Police had to fire at anti-lockdown protesters. Food stores were raided.

In Malawi, the Supreme Court struck down a national lockdown as people protested against it, citing a total collapse of livelihoods. This is the first African country where the judiciary intervened to lift a lockdown.

Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization (ILO) updated its estimate on livelihood loss. It said that half of the global workforce, who are also informal workers, would be losing livelihoods in immediate terms.

This means some 1.6 billion informal workers, more than the population of the world’s second-most populated country, India, would be without jobs. In March, around 2 billion informal workers lost almost 60 per cent of their wages.

With such meager income that might not be adequate for a few days of basic survival, in April, they faced the imminent loss of work and a situation of zero-income.

“For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. Millions of businesses around the world are barely breathing,” says Guy Ryder, director-general of ILO, adding, “They have no savings or access to credit. These are the real faces of the world of work. If we don’t help them now, they will simply perish.”

Africa and India

In Asia and Africa, many countries were already going through economic slowdown or just recovering from other crises.

Like in India, the economic growth rate was the slowest in 11 years while unemployment among informal workers was very high. In case of Africa, though the continent was recording relatively better economic growth, many countries were under stressed conditions.

Take the case of west African countries Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that at least 5.3 million people will face extreme hunger in these countries.

Alarming levels of internal conflicts, insecurity and an early lean season affecting agro-pastoral activities are touted to be responsible for an unprecedented displacement and food insecurity in these countries.

The 2020 Global Food Crisis report released last week warned about acute food insecurity in these countries due to increased violence, displacements and disrupted agriculture and trade. Nearly 1.2 million people have already been displaced by internal conflict and violence in these countries.

The United Nations body predicted that more are likely to be displaced in the next three months if current levels of insecurity persisted.

But this is not it. The three countries are also in the grip of COVID-19. To contain the pandemic, they have adopted measures such as closure of borders and restriction on markets.

These measures have impacted the pastoral areas as well, stated Coumba Sow, FAO resilience coordinator for west Africa. Movement of herders and livestock has been restricted due to closure of international borders.

Earlier this month, the Food Crisis Prevention Network expressed concerns regarding COVID-19-related risks such as collapse of food crop production, impact on pastoralists and a lack of food availability.

In days immediately after the national lockdown was imposed on March 25 in India, we witnessed the desperate migrant workers returning homes. Now, at least 10 states have crafted elaborate strategies to get back at least 11 million migrant workers back into villages.

The relief packages of the Union government and various states have put feeding people, ensuring a livelihood security for a few months and making sure of immediate health facility access at the core.

In India, inter-state migration for work is very prominent, accounting for 43 per cent of total work-related rural-to-urban migration. These migrants are also heading to villages, besides the inter-state ones. But, how would they be absorbed for productive livelihoods?

It is the time of harvesting the rabi crop and starting the new crop cycle. Both are labour- and capital- intensive. But in the normal days, agriculture has been saturating with employment creation and also in generating income.

In the monsoon, the construction sector is usually subdued thus not able to absorb more employment-seeking people. It means villages are flooded with people searching for livelihoods there but without any hope of getting so.

It is a rare sight for India, and for that matter many developing countries that millions who left villages due to distress are coming back due to another distress.

In both the situations, inequality in development and the distribution of wealth created from the economic boom in all these decades have been responsible for pushing millions of already economically-deprived people further into distress.      

In this pandemic, the world learnt two lessons at a deadly cost. First, we anticipated the pandemic but never bothered to follow up with the level of preparedness required to squash it.

Second, a health emergency without a precedent doesn’t have to be approached with a clinical approach. The pandemic is now a global development challenge that is yet to be fathomed for a future strategy to tide over it.

In both these lessons, there is a realisation: inequality in development is a much bigger catalyst, having the power to make a health emergency into a long-term problem.

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