Socio-economic Impact of COVID-19 on the Vulnerable
Covid-19 has jolted the world and affected human life in a variety of ways. It is one of the most infectious diseases challenging the mankind with significant socio-economic impacts. With its outbreak from the Chinese city of Wuhan, life across the globe came to a complete standstill, forcing the people to stay indoors. The World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed the Covid-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020. In Pakistan, first two cases were detected on 26 Feb. 2020. By 27 November 2020, there are 389,311 confirmed cases in Pakistan. Out of these, 335,881 had recovered and 7,897 died while there were 2,112 people in critical condition.
Developing countries have been hit hard by the pandemic with huge socio-economic impact. World Bank’s baseline economic outlook envisages a 5.2 percent contraction in global GDP in 2020. According to the same estimates, South Asia’s GDP will contract by 2.7 percent, that of Sub-Saharan Africa by 2.8 percent and of Middle East by 4.7 percent. GDP growth rate has dropped significantly in these regions, resulting in soaring unemployment and increased poverty. However socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 on different countries vary, given their capacities and resources.
Pakistan is highly vulnerable. The health system of Pakistan is not equipped enough to cope with pandemic of this magnitude. It is disheartening to note that, in the country, only one doctor is available to 963 people and only one bed is available to 1608 patients. There is shortage of doctors and nurses in the hospitals and the people living in far-flung areas are practically left with no opportunities to get initial medical aid in case of emergencies, let alone proper treatment. These insufficient health facilities amidst the pandemic have made people more vulnerable to socio-economic fallouts of Covid-19.
During the past few years, Pakistan had made some modest progress regarding poverty alleviation. Poverty in 2015-16 was 24% as against 64.3% in 2001, lifting around 23 million people out of poverty during this period. But, the pandemic is likely to reverse all the gains. There are huge disparities in terms of poverty in rural and urban areas of the country and also between the rural areas of different provinces. The pandemic has posed serious challenges for the poor. In the following paragraphs, this scribe will focus on the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on the vulnerable segments of the society.
Socio-economic Impact Assessment
According to Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20, an estimated 56.6 percent of Pakistan’s population is vulnerable in social and economic terms as a result of the Covid-19. Women and children from the underprivileged stratum of the society will be affected badly, especially women working in informal sectors, and their households will be bearing the brunt of the crisis in the long run. In order to gauge the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 on Pakistan, impact assessment will be made, taking into consideration the following three areas:
- i) Economic vulnerabilities
- ii) Social vulnerabilities
iii) Food security-related vulnerabilities
- Economic Vulnerabilities
- Employment and labour force
As per Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20, there is an estimated 61.7 million employed labour force in Pakistan. Out of this lot, 27.3 million are in informal sector. It is these people that are most vulnerable. Among the most vulnerable, the loss of employment has been estimated to be between 12.5 million and 15.5 million in case of a partial lockdown and between 18.7 million and 19.1 million in case of a complete lockdown.
- Labour migration and overseas Pakistanis
According to a UNDP report, this sector has also been adversely affected by the Covid-19. The global economy has contracted as a result of the pandemic. Restrictions on international travel have hit badly the migrant workers. As a result of the restrictions, some migrant workers have experience permanent unemployment, and others temporary. All this has resulted in the reduction in their incomes. Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20 reports that about 50,000-60,000 workers could not move abroad after they were registered at the Protectorate Office due to restrictions on travel. Hiring of 100,000 positions has also been stopped due to the restrictions. This has badly affected the migrant workers because they either lost their jobs or could not get a new one because of the lockdown, and contraction in global economy thereof.
- Inequalities in labour force
There are certain professions where women dominate, e.g. domestic workers in the informal sector, and teachers, instructors, nurses and doctors in the formal sector. Due to lockdown and closure of transport, it has been difficult for women to commute and, therefore, they were the most vulnerable to losing their jobs. This tendency, if persists, could lead to reduced female participation in the work force. An analysis of home-based workers (HBWs) found that there are currently 12 million HBWs who earn around Rs. 3, 000 to Rs. 4,000 monthly (Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20). Being employed in informal sector, they are left with no social security. During the complete lockdown, this segment of labour force was hit badly and almost lost their livelihood.
- Social Vulnerabilities
- Healthcare provision
Pakistan’s healthcare facilities are not in line with the demands of a growing population. The country was not in a position to handle a pandemic of this magnitude. Doctor-to-patient ratio in the country is pathetic. Outbreak of the pandemic further exposed gaps and fractures in the healthcare system that was already under stress. Disruptions in supplies put great pressure on the availability of testing kits, personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies.
- Health and immunization of children
During complete lockdown, all the resources were directed towards treating the Covid-19 patients, and non-Covid-related health issues faced disruptions. The general healthcare and the immunization of children faced severe setback. It is important to note that 6 million children are born annually in Pakistan and, sadly, only 66 percent are fully immunized per the figures quoted in Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20. Travel restrictions and disrupted supply chains resulted in the shortage of the essential vaccines, thereby stopping the immunization services. Given this, more children will be left without immunization, causing, therefore, serious health implications to them.
- Education and learning continuity
Education system is already in tatters and the dropout rate was already staggeringly high. There are 42 million school-going learners from pre-primary to degree levels in the country. Covid-19 has affected the school-going children badly. Education system, which is already marked by inefficiency and dropout has become more vulnerable after the Covid-19 outbreak. This tendency, if continues unabated, may increase illiteracy rate in the country. We have the youngest population ever in our history and if we leave them uneducated and unskilled, it will be catastrophic for us in the future. There is a dire need of crafting an overarching policy aimed at mitigating the effects of the Covid-19 so that our frail education system is safeguarded.
- Causing inequalities in education
Public and private schools were the first to be closed and they are not fully operational yet. This closure of educational institutions is going to hit hard the most vulnerable groups, especially those living in the rural areas and slums in the cities. Amid the crisis, women are going to be affected more as compared to men. Restrictions on transport, limited mobility, decline in household income and purchasing power thereof are likely to cause reduction in enrolment rates and increase in dropout rate of the girls.
- Increased gender-based violence
Irrespective of Covid-19, violence against women is increasing in Pakistan at an alarming rate. Almost 90 percent of women have experienced some form of violence at the hands of their husbands or families, 50 percent of women report that their suffering either increases or does not change when they are pregnant, only 0.4 percent women take their cases to the court and almost 50 percent of women who experience domestic violence do not respond in any way and suffer silently.
Statistics released by Punjab Safe Cities Authority and Punjab Unified Communication and Response (PUCAR-15) reveal a tremendous rise in domestic violence against women during the Covid-19 lockdown. The statistics are based on the calls received by PUCAR-15. The data further reveals that 13,478 calls reporting violence were received on 15 help lines from Lahore only between January and May 2020. As many as 2,096 calls were received in January, 2,360 in February and 2,853 in March. The help lines received 3,079 calls in April and 2,390 in May. This clearly demonstrates that violence against women increased during lockdown.
III . Food security-related vulnerabilities
During the complete lockdown, there were border closures and travel restrictions. It means that there were no marketplace activities. This created disruptions in agriculture supplies such as seeds, fertilizers and livestock feed, etc. It is going to greatly impact the local consumers with the shortage of farm produce in the market.
Lockdown, market closures, trade restrictions and disrupted supply chains may restrict people’s access to sufficient and nutritious sources of food. It will further affect those already faced with shortage of food. It is important to note that around 80 percent of the people spend 70 percent of their income on food only. People belonging to lower socioeconomic groups have been affected badly in the crisis and continue to suffer. Almost 62 percent of households belonging to lower socio-economic groups rely on farm labour and daily wages to earn their livelihood.
Response of the government
The Government of Pakistan came up with a PKR 1.13 trillion package which was aimed at providing direct assistance to the vulnerable sections of the society along with protecting business and industry. The first state-level policy response came from the National Security Committee (NCC) in its meetings held on 13 March 2020. The other bodies which were directly involved in policy decision making were; National Coordination Committee headed by Prime Minister with all Chief Ministers as its members. Initially, NCC was assisted by the Implementation and the Monitoring Cell established in Prime Minister’s office. The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) was also established by the end of March 2020. A national coordinator was also appointed by Pakistan Army.
Firstly, the federal government lacked legal basis to declare a national health emergency. Such a legal basis is still missing though a draft bill has been tabled before the cabinet and it was decided to forward the same to the Council of Common Interests. This needs to be effectively pursued.
Secondly, a global catastrophe of this magnitude requires joint response both by the federal and the provincial governments. There was good coordination among the federal ministries. But the vertical coordination between the federal and the provincial governments was not less than a challenge. They were not on the same page regarding different measures to cope with the pandemic. This is also closely linked with the above-stated point and needs to be addressed without compromising the spirit of devolution in health.
Thirdly, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and a powerful commission, established under the very robust NDMA Act, 2010, were already there. The Commission is headed by the Prime Minister with provincial chief ministers are its members. National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) was established despite having the powerful Commission because of the fact that NDMA Commission has not convened any meeting for more than two years. The NCOC performed reasonably well but the NDMA Commission should be proactive to deal with future emergencies. A country like ours where floods are quite common, the non-convening of any meeting in more than two years is not understandable especially when the Commission comprises the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers.
Fourthly, the government faced difficulties in coping with Covid-19 pandemic because of the cultural context of the country. The mosques were shut down in most of the Muslim countries but the same could not be done in Pakistan because of the fear of the backlash from the religious groups. Non-closure of the mosques across the country led to the spike in the Covid-19 cases after the lockdown was relaxed in the holy month of Ramadan.
Fifthly, the people were in a state of denial. Despite a global phenomenon, the people living in the semi-urban and rural areas were not ready to believe that the pandemic ever existed. This tendency is very dangerous. With this mindset, it will be a daunting challenge for the government to cope with the Covid-19 if it spreads to villages.
There is no denying the fact that Covid-19 has badly affected the people living on margins. It has also exposed the gaps and fractures in the country’s health system. The vulnerable sections of the society have been hit hard by the pandemic; especially those working in the informal sectors lost their jobs. Gender- based violence has also been on the increase during the complete lockdown. The magnitude of the severity of Covid-19 is yet to be determined. However, it has exposed our vulnerabilities. The development experts, therefore, must keep these vulnerabilities in mind while chalking out future development policies. Here are some very useful suggestions in this regard:
- Better policies to address poverty
Better policies to address poverty can be instrumental in reducing inequality in the country. There should be focus on resilience, skill development and access to resources, economic growth and inclusive policies.
- Bridging the gap between policy and practice
There is a general gap in policy and practice in the country. Sometimes, even good policies do not yield the desired results because of non-implementation. Keeping in view the gravity of the situation, there is a dire need that the gap between policy and practice be bridged.
- Ensuring food security
Keeping in view that the Covid-19 has affected the economy generally and the agriculture sector particularly, we are likely to face food insecurity. The government needs to make special arrangements for ensuring food security.
- Making joint efforts
In order to cope with the tragedy of this magnitude, there should be joint efforts. The federal government and the federating units should be on the same page. The issues arising out of the 18th Amendment should be amicably solved without compromising on the spirit of devolution.
- Giving more resources to health sector
Our healthcare system is under stress. It is high time we started diverting more resources to the hospitals so that they sufficiently cater for the needs of the growing population
The writer is a Chevening Scholar and studied International Development: Development Management at the University of Manchester