“Millions Who Are Already Hanging by a Thread”: The Global Repercussions of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic threatens life in multiple ways. The virus not only has killed people directly—more than 400,000 to date—but has also worsened poverty and inequality.[1] By disrupting the world economy, the pandemic has taken away many people’s livelihoods and harmed the poor.

The illness and the resulting economic hardships don’t fall equally on everyone but particularly hurt those already economically vulnerable. We should not forget these less obvious but very serious effects of Covid-19. The response to Covid-19 must include efforts to help those whose ability to support themselves has been seriously damaged since the pandemic began.

Fear of contracting Covid-19, along with the various quarantine and social distancing requirements imposed to prevent the virus’ spread, have meant curtailing travel, face-to-face interactions, and other ordinary business activities.[2] All these conditions have presumably prevented infections, which is a great accomplishment.

A negative consequence of these conditions, however, is that businesses that could not successfully operate under such conditions have failed or had to reduce their operations. Enormous numbers of people have been put out of work, and global trade has been disrupted.[3] The world is now facing a dramatic recession.[4]

In the United States, the unemployment rate in May was 13.3%, the highest it has been since the Great Depression, with roughly 20 million people out of work.[5] A recent survey indicates that 40%  of American mothers with children under 12 currently lack access to sufficient food—more than triple the percentage of mothers reporting food insecurity in 2018.[6]

Black Americans have been hit especially hard, both by Covid-19 infections—a result of factors including inadequate healthcare and a lack of jobs that allow working from home—and also by already having an unemployment rate twice that of white Americans.[7]

Beyond the United States, the pandemic’s health and economic consequences severely threaten people in the developing world. Covid-19 will most hurt those already at the bottom of society. In Latin America, for example, poor housing, healthcare, and sanitation conditions among women and people of indigenous or African heritage mean these groups will suffer the pandemic’s worst effects. Many working Latin American women are domestic workers who are at greater risk of unemployment and have less access to social safety nets.[8]

Refugees and displaced populations around the world, who may live in camps where social distancing isn’t possible, are also at heightened risk. People in developing countries who suffer from malnutrition are more vulnerable to severe Covid-19 symptoms. People falling sick from Covid-19 could create labor shortages and overwhelm already strained healthcare systems in developing countries. The global recession, as well as social distancing’s effects on service sector workers, risks lowering employment and incomes in developing countries. Also, the worsening economic situation in developed countries could mean that people in developing countries will not receive the same flow of money from relatives in the developed world.

Meanwhile, restrictions on movement intended to contain the virus’ spread could disrupt planting and harvesting by farmers, as well as their ability to sell their products. This situation will, in turn, limit general access to food.[9]

In Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, GDP may have fallen by more than a third during a March to April lockdown. The number of Nigerians living in poverty might increase by 30 million as a result.[10] Meanwhile, East African nations are struggling against a locust plague that threatens food supplies; travel restrictions because of the pandemic, however, have disrupted the flow of necessary pesticides. In India, the pandemic has contributed to work disappearing in cities. As a result, about half a million people have left cities to walk long distances to their hometowns.[11]

The current array of economic problems prompted United Nations officials to predict this spring that the global number of people without adequate access to food, which was 135 million in 2019, might almost double this year.[12]

Moreover, food insecurity and other disruptions and tensions caused by Covid-19 may make conflict within and between societies more likely in the future (and doubtless aggravate those conflicts that already exist). In South Africa, for example, hungry people have broken into food stalls and gotten into confrontations with police. The combination of increased poverty and home confinement fostered by the pandemic may also increase intimate partner violence. Different threats to life can thus combine to do still greater harm.[13]

David Beasley, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), warned this April that the world faced “multiple famines of biblical proportions” if appropriate action was not taken.[14] Dr. Arif Hussein, the chief economist for the WFP, commented that “Covid-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread.”[15]

To be clear, none of this year’s dire economic events mean that measures such as lockdowns or social distancing are somehow unwise or unjustified. Preventing illness and deaths from Covid-19 is crucial and, as the poor and marginalized disproportionately suffer from the pandemic, such prevention also promotes social justice.

We should not, however, lose sight of the drastic consequences of even short-term economic disruptions. Aiding the world’s poor so they are safe from both illness and destitution is a necessary part of the Covid-19 response.

The WFP’s 2020 Global Food Crisis report warns that food insecure countries “may face an excruciating trade-off between saving lives or livelihoods or, in a worst-case scenario, saving people from the corona virus to have them die from hunger.”[16] Policymakers and aid agencies must work to prevent such terrible options being the only ones available. The Food Crisis report emphasizes the need, despite the pandemic’s disruptions, to maintain humanitarian assistance flows to vulnerable groups and to increase efforts to ensure the continued processing, transportation, and sale of food in the neediest countries.[17]

Those wishing to take political action on behalf of those threatened by Covid-19 and poverty could follow the lobbying efforts of Bread for the World (www.bread.org). Those able to help by donating money might consider giving to Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org), which is responding to the pandemic through their aid work in various developing countries. You could also give to Masks for the People (http://www.livefreeusa.org/masksforthepeople), which provides masks and other supplies, such as Covid-19 testing kits and hand sanitizer, to people of color in the United States. Staying informed is also valuable, as is taking a global view of human needs. The current pandemic demonstrates vividly how crises stretch across national borders and how issues such as illness, poverty, inequality, and conflict are connected.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] “Covid-19 Dashboard,” Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), accessed June 2020, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html.

[2] Jeanna Smialek and Jack Ewing, “Global Economic Policymakers Scramble as Coronavirus Threatens Growth,” New York Times, March 2, 2020, https://nyti.ms/2FQ5g7Z.

[3] Larry Elliott, “Coronavirus Putting World on Track for New Great Depression, Says WTO,” Guardian, April 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/3mJVbL1.

[4] World Bank, “COVID-19 to Plunge Global Economy into Worst Recession since World War II,” June 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/2FVspWt.

[5] For May 2020 unemployment rate, see “Table A-1. Employment Status of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population 16 Years and Over, 1985 to Date,” Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed September 19, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea01.htm. For about 20 million unemployed, Heather Long, “U.S. Now Has 22 Million Unemployed, Wiping Out a Decade of Job Gains,” Washington Post, April 16, 2020, https://wapo.st/3ceZqsP.

[6] Alexandra Sternlicht, “The Number of Mothers Reporting Food Insecurity Has Jumped More Than 200% Since Start of Pandemic,” Forbes, May 7, 2020, https://bit.ly/2H6VIGf.

[7] Janell Ross, “As More Black Americans Die from Coronavirus, Community Leaders Are Taking Action,” NBC News, April 17, 2020, https://nbcnews.to/32Mg0x7.

[8] Natalia A. Ramos Miranda, “Women, Migrants, Minorities to Suffer Most in Latin America as Coronavirus Rages: U.N. Agency,” Reuters, May 12, 2020, https://reut.rs/3hMop8b.

[9] Food Security Information Network (FSIN) and Global Network against Food Crises, 2020 Global Report on Food Crises: Joint Analysis for Better Decisions (FSIN, 2020), 4-5, available at https://bit.ly/3mAjIlq.

[10] James Thurlow, “COVID-19 Lockdowns Are Imposing Substantial Economic Costs on Countries in Africa,” International Food Policy Research Institute blog, May 8, 2020, https://bit.ly/2FO66SK.

[11] Abdi Latif Dahir, “‘Instead of Coronavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us.’ A Global Food Crisis Looms,” New York Times, April 22, 2020, https://nyti.ms/3iHPDOu.

[12] Ibid.; William Cummings, “UN Food Program Chief Fears Coronavirus Could Lead to ‘Famines of Biblical Proportions,’” USA Today, April 22, 2020, https://bit.ly/2ZNv8IT.  

[13] Dahir, “‘Instead of Coronavirus, the Hunger Will Kill Us,’”; FSIN and Global Network against Food Crises, 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, 5.

[14] Cummings, “UN Food Program Chief Fears Coronavirus Could Lead to ‘Famines of Biblical Proportions.’”

[15] Fiona Harvey, “Coronavirus Crisis Could Double Number of People Suffering Acute Hunger – UN,” Guardian, April 21, 2020, https://bit.ly/2ZStPs8.

[16] FSIN and Global Network against Food Crises, 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, 4.

[17] Ibid., 5.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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