IN AN interview with TalkRadio in November, Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University, voiced her concern about the devastating effects of lockdowns. She said that ‘lockdowns are a luxury for the affluent . . . the UK cannot afford it’. Professor Gupta was spot on.
It has been estimated that each day of lockdown costs the UK economy £2.4billion, which it is hard to believe the country can afford without impoverishing generations to come. This vast sum is due in no small part to the unprecedented economic protective measures set up by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, including the government furlough scheme introduced in March 2020 and subsequently extended to the end of April this year.
Yet despite the government’s job retention schemes, the number facing extreme economic hardship in the UK has risen at an alarming rate. According to a report from the Legatum Institute think tank, 440,000 more people were in poverty by last summer and 690,000 more by the winter.
If the ‘UK cannot afford it’, where does that leave less developed countries? Their situation is a lot bleaker. If our economy is on a ventilator, theirs must be close to the last breath.
The world’s poorest come from developing nations which already suffer from high poverty rates. ‘Extreme poor’ is defined as living on less than $1.90 a day. These developing nations are often indebted to the World Bank through their massive loan schemes, which puts them at a dire disadvantage in coping with the economic impact of Covid-19.
Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, says: ‘It’s already clear that the social and economic impact of the pandemic on the world’s poorest will be severe and long-lasting. Nations that are crippled by unsustainable debt lack the resources to prop up their economies.’
Take India: its economy contracted by 24 per cent during coronavirus lockdown. In March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a 21-day lockdown (subsequently extended to the beginning of May), giving the country’s 1.4billion people only four hours’ notice. Mobs besieged shops for food. Trains and buses were so overwhelmed by internal migrant workers desperate to get home that they ceased operating altogether. Millions were forced to walk hundreds of miles home and many died on the journey. This mass exodus exposed a deep disparity in Indian society: how cities rely on cheap labour from the countryside. These ‘daily wage’ workers, not able to earn a living, faced the real prospect of starving to death, and many did. The website Thejesh GN is a public database showing a breakdown of non-Covid deaths as a result of the lockdown in India. The top three causes of death are starvation, accidents during migration and suicide.
Thailand has also been heavily hit by the economic impact of Covid-19 lockdowns, as 7 per cent of its GDP comes from the tourism sector. Ten per cent of the population in Thailand are migrant workers, and like India they are the worst impacted by lockdowns. Migrant workers do not benefit at all from the Thai government’s social security system, which did help to mitigate some of the economic fallout from Covid-19. A significant reduction in the poverty rate from 16.37 per cent in 2000 to 7.21 per cent in 2015 has been reversed by the economic impact of Covid-19. Millions in Thailand have been thrown back into poverty, and hunger is rampant.
The UK, like many developed and middle-income nations, has been able to engage in costly measures to mitigate the economic fallout from the pandemic. The jury is out on how successful they will be. Elsewhere in the world there’s been no such intervention. The UN World Food Programme’s warning that 270,000,000 people face starvation as a result of the global impact of lockdowns and restrictions has fallen on deaf ears. The World Bank has forecast that Covid-19 would add ‘as many as 150million extreme poor by 2021’.
Against the 2.25million deaths worldwide from Covid to date, it is hard not to see lockdown as far more destructive to the world’s poor than the disease itself.