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Poverty & SDGs

Q&A: Continued Social Distancing and Hundreds of Millions More in Poverty – A New Normal for the World?

Child refugees from Central African Republic in Cameroon’s eastern border town of Garoua-Boula share a plate of rice in an early morning in this dated photo. Experts say that as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19 the number of people facing food insecurity could at the least double. Credit: Monde Kingsley Nfor/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 22 2020 (IPS) - With much of the global economy stalled amid an unprecedented lockdown of nations grappling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the author of a new United Nations report on the disease’s impact on poverty told IPS that hundreds of millions more could be pushed into poverty and we can expect to see social unrest.

“A lockdown without access to food is going to be very tough on people, and one can expect social unrest arising out of it,” Andy Sumner, a professor of International Development at King’s College London, told IPS.

Sumner, along with Eduardo Ortiz-Juarez of King’s College London and Chris Hoy of Australian National University, is co-author of a report published in the U.N. University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) earlier this month, which estimates COVID-19’s impact on poverty could push anywhere between 85 million people (at the very least) to 580 million globally into poverty.

Sumner told IPS that the resultant global lockdowns were impacting the economies of developing nations in a big way.

“For developing countries, this is the primary economic shock channel. Given the age structure of developing countries it could be the economic channel is more significant than the health channel. It’s difficult to say at the moment,” Sumner told IPS.

These views were echoed by the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) yesterday, Apr. 21, as it called for swift action to alleviate the impacts of the lockdown. WFP’s Senior Economist, Arif Husain said in a statement, “COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock – like COVID-19 – to push them over the edge. We must collectively act now to mitigate the impact of this global catastrophe.”

Meanwhile, the  report further claims “the greatest impact will be in sub-Saharan Africa  where up to half of the new poor will live”. Sumner said that’s because any country that has a lot of people living just above the poverty line remains vulnerable to a poverty spike from an economic slowdown.

Excerpts of the interview follow. Some of the answers have been paraphrased for clarity purposes. 

Inter Press Service (IPS): Your report states that the number of people living in poverty in the world could increase by between 85–135 million in the event of a 5 percent contraction, between 420–580 million people under a per capita income or consumption contraction of 20 percent. Does this mean that COVID-19’s impact on poverty is a range?

Andy Sumner (AS): Yes, potentially. However, it depends on a set of factors.

First, we have a set of consumption contractions applied to all countries. We do not know which of our three scenarios is closest to the final version, and consumption changes may differ across countries. Furthermore, we are assuming that such contractions are distribution-neutral.

Secondly, we should not forget that there are other transmission channels from the pandemic to poverty beyond changes in consumption.

Thirdly, there are other types of poverty that we are not measuring, such as deprivations in health itself that cannot be captured in consumption losses.

Finally, many governments in developing countries have already introduced or adapted social protection and jobs programmes. Thus, to some extent the full impacts might be mitigated, we hope.

IPS: You mentioned in the report that this could have a negative effect on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030 – can you elaborate why/how this will be?

AS: The SDGs aim to end global poverty in all its forms and leave no one behind. If COVID-19 adds 500 million more people in poverty, that’ll mean the SDGs are under threat even more than before COVID.

IPS: What steps can countries and local leaders take to avoid this consequence of further poverty?

AS: In the immediate term, there is an overwhelming need for the full range of safety nets and social protection to be initiated, expanded, and multiplied in all developing countries as soon as possible.

This looks like it is happening already to some extent and many countries already have programmes that just need expanding and better funding.

In the longer term, questions might emerge about how to provide basic healthcare for all as part of the SDG package and how that is to be financed. That debate seems to have dropped off the radar before COVID. Maybe COVID-19 will bring it back in from the cold.

IPS: What do you believe still remains unanswered about the situation?

AS: One important question is: will there ever be a vaccine especially so if there is no guarantee of immunity from COVID-19 even with infection. Then we need to ask, will everyone have access to the vaccine and will it be 100 percent effective. Or will we end up living in a new apartheid of COVID-19 between the vaccinated and non-vaccinated living in separate areas and working in different labour markets?

This also looks like a long crisis — with multiple waves. A best case scenario and vaccine in two years time would take five to 10 years to vaccinate everyone in the world possibly. So it looks like living with COVID-19 restrictions might be our new normal.

 
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