When the nationwide lockdown to curb the COVID outbreak was announced in March 2020, Sharda, a sixty-year-old woman living in one of India’s six hundred thousand villages, had little to worry about. She owned a farm, and for years, the farm had been the source of livelihood and food for her family. But a few weeks later, Sharda had still not been able to sell the produce. Lack of harvesters and farm workers had brought farm operations to a standstill. With reducing farmgate prices, Sharda was now looking at months of enormous hardship.
Vipul is a man in his twenties. He lives in an Indian metropolitan with his wife and his nine-month-old daughter. Till March 2020, he used to work in one of India’s leading consumer goods company. But in April, as the country entered into lockdown and the economy slowed down, Vipul, along with several other workers lost their jobs. With no income in sight and dwindling savings, survival has been difficult for Vipul and others like him.
The stories of Sharda and Vipul are similar to thousands across the world. According to the latest estimates by the World Bank, the COVID -19 pandemic is likely to push between 88 and 115 million people into extreme poverty in 2020, setting back poverty reduction by around three years. A large share of the new poor will be concentrated in countries that are already struggling with high poverty rates, but middle-income countries will also be significantly affected. Almost half of the projected new poor will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an additional 16 million in South Asia.
The economic and social impacts of the pandemic may vary across different groups and geographies. In the past, epidemics, such as HIV-AIDS, SARS, H1N1, and Ebola, have shown that the most vulnerable often bear the heaviest burden. There is a good possibility that pre-existing gender gaps have intensified due to the adverse effects of COVID-19, thus widening inequalities and reversing gains. Vulnerable groups such as migrants, refugees, and people with disabilities now face greater challenges in accessing services such as health, education, and infrastructure.
Considering the varying impact of the pandemic on different groups, a once-size-fits-all policy package will just not do. What we need is a set of flexible policy responses complemented with interventions that consider the specific circumstances and needs of the poor and vulnerable. These policy interventions must act to minimize the potentially devastating effects of the outbreak on the welfare of the vulnerable groups, and to limit long-term consequences that would lead to deeper poverty and inequality traps.
Effective policymaking and monitoring in a situation that is so rapidly evolving require that decision-makers have access to timely and relevant data on both impacts and the effectiveness of policy responses. Data can also be a powerful tool to effect change in policy and attitudes. Governments and philanthropies need to adopt a data-driven approach to this crisis. We need to put in place systems that can gather real-time data on pandemic impacts and monitor policy and program implementation. This will also help healthcare providers, researchers, public health departments, and regulators to have comprehensive visibility into near-real-time data that is critical for saving lives.
The end to this pandemic may not be in sight, not yet. But the emergency has shown that the right information used in the right way can help save lives all over the world. In the following months, our ability to communicate vital information in effective ways and drive change, can become our endgame in combating COVID-19.
Anubrata Basu – Senior Manager – Research & Communications, Sambodhi