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For now, the bulk of the official global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is in wealthy Western countries. But that may start to change. The past weeks have seen the first confirmed cases of covid-19 in some of the world’s biggest, most congested slums. Public health experts fear that the volume of infections in parts of the developing world may be far greater than current official estimates. A study in Brazil by a consortium of universities projected that the country’s actual number of coronavirus cases could be 12 times the current reported figure.
But even if the virus doesn’t spread in packed cities and towns where effective social distancing is impossible, the pandemic will have already exacted a bitter price. For hundreds of millions of people suddenly stripped of livelihoods, daily wages and the means for their families’ survival, poverty may kill sooner than the coronavirus.
“The pandemic is already confronting some of the world’s poorest nations with their greatest economic challenge in decades. Income losses in the developing world are expected to exceed $220 billion, the United Nations warned. … Nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost,” my colleagues reported at the end of last month.
They went on: “Wealthy European governments are paying furloughed workers the majority of their salaries, and millions of Americans who lose their jobs will have access to unemployment benefits. But billions of people in Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean work in the informal economy, living life on the margins with little to no social safety net.”
The indicators are dire. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund said the pandemic is provoking the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The fund reversed earlier predictions that the global economy would grow about 3 percent this year; now, it’s expected to contract by an equivalent amount. World output over the next two years will fall $9 trillion short of what was expected before the crisis. It is a loss akin to having Germany and Japan’s economies vanish, Gita Gopinath, the IMF’s chief economist, told my colleague David Lynch.
More than 90 countries have petitioned the IMF for assistance, with poorer nations facing the looming prospect of debt crises and political turmoil should they fail to secure fiscal aid from wealthier powers.
“Disorderly defaults on government debt would cause stock and bond prices to gyrate on Wall Street. A torrent of illegal migrants fleeing poverty and sickness could demand refuge,” reported Lynch. “And countries in chaos might serve as a haven for the coronavirus, enabling waves of infection that would hamstring the global economy for years.”
That’s already on view in Ecuador’s coastal metropolis of Guayaquil, which has become the Latin American epicenter of the virus. With hospitals and mortuaries overwhelmed, hundreds of bodies were left to rot in homes or in the city’s streets. The crisis has been exacerbated by the desperation of working people in the informal economy, unprotected by social safety nets.
Carlos Tutiven, a sociologist in Guayaquil’s University of Casa Grande, pointed to the wealth disparities that defined the city as a source of the problem in an interview with Agence France-Presse. “Not everyone can show obedience and discipline because the vast majority of people live in very precarious conditions,” he said.
But the pandemic is no less punishing in places that appear far less affected by the virus. In Paraguay, which has one of the lowest infection rates in South America, an estimated 65 percent of the country’s workforce exists in the informal economy, with limited access to help from an already cash-strapped government.
“There’s no support, there’s nothing from the state,” Valentina Osuna, a craftswoman from the indigenous village of Rosarino, told the Guardian. “My children are hungry.”
That appeal can be heard across the world. “The day before yesterday, my kids went to sleep without eating. There was nothing to eat,” Mohammad Azem, who is accustomed to making the equivalent of a few dollars a day on the streets of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, told NPR. “Some nice people give me food to take home, but other people get really mad because of the coronavirus and they tell me to go away.” (In neighboring India, meanwhile, close to half a billion people in the informal economy face uncertainty and possibly hunger if government relief doesn’t reach them.)
In sub-Saharan Africa, home to one of the world’s youngest populations, the World Bank predicts the first recession in 25 years. A report from the African Union suggested the pandemic puts nearly 20 million jobs on the continent, in both the formal and informal sectors, at risk of “destruction.” The region’s governments can muster some resources but will need outside help to weather the economic storm.
“Rich countries could establish a rapid innovation fund to encourage social entrepreneurs to develop low-cost, scalable ventilators,” wrote Brian Klass for The Washington Post’s Global Opinions. “We must also prepare famine aid to places that are at highest risk of starvation. And rich countries past their own peaks will need to send staff and supplies to emerging outbreaks in poor countries. There is no time to waste.”
For the West and other major powers battling the pandemic, such efforts could be a matter of their own national interest, too. “Trouble travels. It doesn’t stay in one place,” Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, told The Post. “This pandemic will not be over until it’s over everywhere.”