[Devyn Holliday is a Research Officer with the Economic, Youth & Sustainable Development Directorate, Commonwealth Secretariat. This blog is part of the Commonwealth seminar series on The Economics of COVID-19 and has been shared with the permission of the Commonwealth Secretariat.]
When countries shuttered their shops, closed their markets, and cordoned off places of gathering to help ward off the coronavirus, they did so out of immediate concern for the health and wellbeing of their citizens.
However, as these measures endure the virus is no longer the sole threat to the health and wellbeing of citizens. People across the globe are facing mounting threats to their wellbeing compounded by growing unemployment, lockdown in vulnerable living conditions, and decreases in aid and remittances.
Ultimately, in fighting the flames of Covid-19 other issues are getting suffocated in the smoke— unhealthy tradeoffs arise as other struggles are now neglected and pushed to the side.
Loss of Aid
With resources, aid and attention focused on controlling the spread of Covid-19, the flames of other illnesses previously handled by medical aid are slowly starting to burn again.
Over 117 million children will miss measles vaccinations (as well as those for cholera and polio) in the coming weeks and months as Covid-19 forces countries to put immunization campaigns on hold.
Furthermore, resources have been diverted from women’s sexual and reproductive health with over 5,600 mobile clinics and community-based centres across the globe being closed, thus putting women’s health increasingly at risk.
With aid and attention funnelled towards getting Covid-19 outbreaks under control, we are facing a game of pick your poison: focus your efforts on Covid-19, while other preventable illnesses and conditions flare up due to lack of resources and attention, or see your country become the new epicentre. But, countries need not pick up the poison chalice in the first place.
Strengthening domestic institutions
To avoid regression of progress on other health fronts due to decreases in aid, personnel and funding, countries must bolster their domestic institutions to deliver aid and be flexible in their pursuits.
As it is difficult to start from scratch and scale up, countries should build off of whatever existing institutions or organisations already deliver aid domestically. For example, in the Pacific this means investing in the education, training, and equipment of kinship and wantok groups as aid is typically distributed by them on a community level, particularly in rural areas.
Alongside economic contraction around the world, the World Bank estimates there has been a $110 billion USD drop in remittances.
With the backbone of living standards across the developing world now being removed, countries need to act fast in order to keep households afloat.
Actions to not only reduce the monetary cost of transactions but also the time and opportunity cost of both sending and receiving remittances need to be taken.
Ultimately to keep the world’s vulnerable from losing what resources they do have as far as education, food, housing security etc., countries must take bold action to ensure that remittances can firstly be made, and secondly be sent and received with relative ease.
Impact on Women
Bold action must also be taken to address and remedy the way in which the virus, as those before it, has been unequally burdening women. In past epidemics, like the 2013-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we saw large upticks in sexual and gender-based violence due to women being confined to home but also the diversion of resources that would normally protect them towards fighting the outbreak (Onyango 2020) — today we see a similar happening across the globe.
To combat this, protective services for women and girls (Women’s centres, domestic violence hotlines, safe spaces, sexual and reproductive centres etc.,) need to be classified as essential services. By doing so, women will have many more courses of redress and avenues to receive the help they need.
Economically, women are disproportionately burdened by Covid-19 for many reasons, the primary ones being the largely unequal amount of unpaid care work, gender pay gaps, and the closure of marketplaces resulting in increased unemployment.
Due to entrenched gender roles, women are seen as the primary caregivers, and with lockdowns confining families to their own households, women are disproportionately engaging in care, whether it’s the education of children or the caring for sick or elderly family members.
While this work is necessary, the unequal burden of it inhibits women’s educational and economic pursuits, in turn setting them up for a skills and assets gap in the long-run.
Therefore, it is integral that Covid-19 interventions address this inequality and the compounded burden of domestic work on women and girls.
In order to support economic recovery for women, skills trainings could help bolster their earnings when markets and informal sectors of society do reopen and until then, social protection measures should help to compensate women for their unpaid labour.
Covid-19 is unlike any other challenge faced in the modern era, thus to fight it we must use unprecedented ways of thinking and planning.
It is not enough to fight the disease while other development efforts are left to wane without resources and attention.
Country responses must take into account how their vulnerable populations are being doubly affected by not only the virus but also by the responses intended to keep them safe.