It wasn’t perfect, but until this year we had made great strides in reducing poverty across the world. Certainly some countries did it better than others and there were more than a few setbacks along the way. Even so, compared to where most of the world was at the beginning of the previous century, few can argue that more people could enjoy a better standard of living. The novel coronavirus has changed all that. And as the pandemic still rages on in most countries, no one knows how bad this change will be once the dust settles. Already, the gains in poverty reduction of the past are being upturned.
The closure of virtually all economic activities has resulted in massive layoffs, even in parts of the world that had been much better off. If predictions prove to be true, most of them will not have one to return to once normalcy resumes. Already many families that had long escaped the grip of poverty are finding themselves slipping back towards it. Once their safety nets and nest eggs deplete, many more will likely follow. More than the old, it is the young that are at risk of suffering the most. Many thinkpieces have been written on the millenials’ misfortune of suffering not one but two great global recessions in the prime of their lives. Unicef and Save the Children also warn that by this year’s end, another 86 million children will grow up in poverty.
Most governments may be in firefighting mode right now, but sooner or later, they would also need to grapple with the long-term effects of the pandemic and other extreme shocks to the economy. As we draw lessons and recalibrate our lifestyles on an individual level, it is crucial to do the same at national and global levels. Gains in poverty reduction may have removed some of the urgency before, but there is no doubt that the way the world’s economy works is exploitative. If history proves anything, it’s that too much exploitation will inevitably result in upheaval.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2020.