Apart from its immediate public health impact, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have wide-reaching economic implications. Many countries have taken measures to limit or prevent social interactions through the implementation of curfews, lockdowns, and restrictions to movement. These have negatively impacted poor households which depend on dialy income to meet their basic needs.
The International Monetary Fund predicts that the pandemic will lead to the worst economic downturn with the global economy contracting by about 3 percent in 2020. More than 90 countries and most from the Global South have approached the fund seeking some type of financial assistance to help them weather the pandemic. These countries are suffering a rising health-care burden along with the loss of traditional revenue streams like agriculture, tourism, mining, and oil sales. Most governments in the Global South already have huge budget deficits and are not in position to give the kind of stimulus given by countries in the Global North. Worse still the pandemic has hit countries in the Global South during a period of modest economic growth.
Implications of pandemic containment measures
In the Global South, majority of citizens are employed in the informal sector, with women making up the majority of informal workers. The Global South also has high unemployment rates and where there is work it is mostly precarious. Public health measures put in place to curb the spread of the virus also compound cost of living for the poor who work in the informal sector. Many live in informal settlements, where poverty, lack of water, sanitation, and cramped conditions make life even harder. Many live from hand to mouth, without adequate safety nets or significant savings. Low-income families lack disposable cash and cannot stockpile food during lockdowns as they need daily and sustained incomes to meet basic needs.
Jobs are being lost and livelihoods destroyed and in these circumstances child poverty will increase dramatically. Many low-income families are doing what they need to do to survive on a day to day basis, but this often puts them at risk of contracting the virus and being arrested for flunting government regulations. Social distancing is not an option for these vulnerable families as they continue to work in environments that place them more at risk of contracting the virus and this is worsened by the prevalence of diseases such as malaria and cholera.
Impact on low-income families with children
The impact of COVID-19 on low-income families with children is likely to be more severe in the short term and recovery for these families will take much longer. There is an urgent need to protect the most vulnerable in society from paying the biggest price. Worryingly most economies on the Global South are predominantly informal and lack the fiscal space and financial resources to implement the kind of safety nets and economic stimulus measures being rolled out in the G20 countries. However, countries in the Global South still have the opportunity to use available resources to put in place urgent measures to mitigate the impact.
Opportunity for a unique response
The COVID-19 pandemic presents governments in the Global South with an opportunity to address the underlying causes of child poverty and policies that have contributed towards family poverty and widened inequalities in their economies. Going forward measures must be put in place to address the chronic underfunding of health systems and the need for affordable housing, water, and sanitation measures. Many countries already have social safety net systems in place that include cash transfers directed at target groups, such as those living in poverty, the elderly, and those with disabilities. It is expected that countries in the Global South would expand these existing systems.
Direct and Indirect Measures
COVID-19 will further exacerbate child poverty both directly and indirectly and governments in the Global South have to take urgent steps to mitigate its impact and pro-actively develop social safety nets adapted to the country situation. Direct measures that affect children and low-income families, include:
Food and nutritional security: The threat to survival, malnutrition and chronic growth retardation is real, food aid, broad food and nutritional security interventions will help mitigate the risk. This can be done by expanding ongoing country programmes and emergency food aid for vulnerable children and low-income families.
Primary health care and surveillance by first responders: Ensuring sustained outreach with primary health care to children will be critical. This will allow not only early detection of illnesses including COVID 19 but also continuing of regular services vital to children like immunization.
Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT): Strengthening social protection safety nets should also include direct cash transfer programmes for families and children living in poverty. Governments should work with civil society organizations that have already pre-identified children living in poverty for cash transfers. This allows low-income families to cope directly with the effects of the pandemic.
Recognizing the crucial role social safety nets play in reducing child poverty among low income families, governments in the Global South must focus on indirect measures that will positively impact low-income families and hence indirectly safeguard their children. These measures may include :
Financial aid for low-income families: Putting in place financial aid packages that include universal direct cash transfers, suspending payment of water and electricity bills, subsidies, loan waivers, interest relief, special employment guarantee schemes and tax cuts for low-income families, the self-employed and informal sector workers.
Targeting urban slums and informal settlements: Rolling out interventions would offer a long-term solutions to preventing the spread of future disease outbreaks and reduce impoverishment by providing access to emergency health services, sanitation and water supply.
Surveillance and inclusion of the most vulnerable: Governments and civil society should enhance efforts to identify those who are not part of any existing social safety nets including refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), marginalized communities and their children for proactive support and inclusion.
By Rev. Fred Nyabera,
Director Arigatou International – End Child Poverty