At a quick glance, the Covid-19 pandemic may be viewed as an ‘equal opportunity’ virus which has infected the haves just as readily as the have-nots. It is true that neither leaders in the global south nor the global north have been able to escape its wrath. Covid-19 has infected the Deputy Health Minister of Iran, the Presidents of Brazil and the United States, as well as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Yet, a closer look at the data reveals that Covid-19 has targeted poorer people more effectively in both poor and rich countries, and the long-term brunt of it will also be borne by the already disadvantaged, if post-pandemic life goes back to the way things were.
This global pandemic has laid bare the deep inequalities plaguing our world. The virus has found the most fertile ground to breed in circumstances of deprivation. Covid-19 infections and mortality rates are much higher amongst vulnerable and marginalised groups, already afflicted by structural forms of oppression, inequality, corruption and gender-based violence.
Covid-19 has brutalised the most powerful nation in the world, the US. Yet, within the US, people who are the hardest hit are the ethnic and racial minorities, who have underlying health conditions, lack access to healthcare, and often do not have the luxury of working from their laptops at home.
In countries like India, it is the poor and destitute, dependent on low-income informal sector jobs who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and ill-planned and hurriedly executed government attempts to stem the tide of the pandemic.
According to the World Bank, global extreme poverty is expected to rise for the first time in over 20 years. The Covid-19 pandemic is estimated to have already pushed 88-115 million people into extreme poverty this year. The total may rise to as many as 150 million by 2021, depending on the severity of the economic contraction.
The Covid-19 pandemic will invariably bring about a spate of debt crises, which will further compel poor countries to take more loans from entities like the World Bank and the IMF. Getting more loans from these international financial institutions will not automatically help lessen social-economic inequalities within and across most countries around the world.
International aid provision has itself become an industry. It is dominated by countries with problematic histories of colonialism and imperialism, which now use aid to entice or pressure poorer countries to comply with a hierarchical global order. Many development experts also push for market-based reforms to address the problem of poverty, which does little to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor.
Top-heavy and elite-led development policymaking is not exclusively the domain of donor nations, as policymakers in the global south themselves ascribe to such notions. From Peru to Pakistan, we can see former World Bank and IMF staffers head major institutions including finance ministries, state banks, and planning commissions.
However, the heavy reliance on volatile global finance and increasingly competitive export markets, being advocated by the IMF and pushed by policymakers within countries like Pakistan to deal with the worsened post-Covid-19 slump, could further increase inequality. Instead, it’s time to rethink the use of tried and tested policies which try to make the economic pie bigger by focusing on market-based policies, even if the benefits of this approach continue to make the rich richer. Instead progressive taxing, reigning in big business, and ensuring provision of basic social services to vulnerable populations is the need of the hour.
The world, especially poorer and highly inequitable countries like our own, can no longer afford to continue peddling bankrupt notions of elite-led growth. The benefits of such policies will continue to evade the bottom of the pyramid multitudes, who lack the resilience to contend with climate change, or another global pandemic.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2020.