Lockdowns will have devastating effects on poor people’s ability to put food on the table and to stay healthy. According to a new study by UN-WIDER, the number of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than 1.90 international dollars a day) could increase for the first time in 30 years because of the economic impacts of social distancing.
With all African schools currently closed, children’s educational prospects may now also be at risk.
My son’s school in Zurich is able to support the continuity of his education by sending educational material via email or video. For most schools on our neighbouring continent, however, limited internet access makes this impossible. In times of social distancing, the digital divide will further increase the global learning gap.
We are in this together
In most African countries, with fewer reported cases
(even if underestimated), early social distancing measures seem to have restricted the spread of the virus to poor, densely populated areas. However, it is likely that the virus will eventually spread. In any case, poor people are living in conditions that already leave them disproportionately affected by the global lockdown.
As a society, it is our responsibility to show the same solidarity with people living on our neighbouring continent that we currently show with our neighbours in Switzerland. The coronavirus does not stop at national borders, nor should our action to confront it. Social distancing calls for social protection measures to ensure that poor people around the world are not bearing the burden of slowing the virus.
To ease the consequences of the pandemic, we should support health systems and expand cash-transfer programs, which offer an effective way to improve people’s lives, in particular when facing income loss. In the longer term, we should support African societies to build up the preconditions needed to cope with pandemics — and to ensure decent living conditions for all.
Last, we currently pay a lot of attention to global numbers of COVID-19 cases. In the future, we might want to expand our attention to global numbers on various other infectious diseases, access to water and soap, and people living in extreme poverty.
Isabel Günther wrote this blog post together with
Antoinette van der Merwe
, a doctoral student in the ETH Development Economics Group. Antoinette was visiting her family in South Africa when airports closed due to the lockdown.