Covid and the poor

May 27 2020

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A STARK reminder of the fight against Covid-19 has recently been issued by the United Nations. All things considered, the cost could represent “the largest reversal in human development on record”, according to a report issued by the United Nations Development Programme last week. The authors look at the human cost of the fight in comprehensive terms, from days of education lost for children to aggravation of gender-based inequality and internet access, to name a few. This approach is far superior to others that look only at foregone wages of the poor; it encompasses the many dimensions of poverty as well as providing a more long-term view of the cost impact of the fight against the virus. “The drop in human development is expected to be much higher in developing countries that are less able to cope with the pandemic’s social and economic fallout than richer nations,” the report states, and points to the enduring nature of the challenges that are opening up before us all. This goes far beyond the ‘lockdown versus livelihoods’ debate, which was a non-debate to start with because it pushed the poor to pursue their livelihoods in the midst of a mushrooming pandemic.

Those using the human development approach to the problem are reminding us that deprivation takes many forms and a renewed commitment to equity and social and economic justice is going to have to be a part of the new policy software that governments will have to adopt, regardless of their resource endowments. “This crisis shows that if we fail to bring equity into the policy toolkit, many will fall further behind,” the report’s lead author says, warning that the government’s response will need to go much further than simply enhancing social protection schemes, and certainly far beyond the simple reopening of the economy so that the poor can be made to return to work regardless of the risks posed by the infection. Among the many challenges that are opening up before the government now, the improvement in internet access across the country is a critical one because it is a key enabler of mitigation strategies for the pandemic. Beyond this, education, gender equality and access to health are going to be long-term challenges. The moment clearly calls for a serious rethink of major priorities for countries such as Pakistan where the already depressed social indicators have not made the task any easier.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2020