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News > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Impact of Covid- 19 on inequalities in the world of work

Impact of Covid- 19 on inequalities in the world of work

IDS Student Anjali Dhingra (MADev13) highlights how inequalities are being exacerbated by Covid-19, with marginalised, low-income groups and women bearing the brunt of the pandemic

Stilgherrian from Wentworth Falls, Australia / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Stilgherrian from Wentworth Falls, Australia / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged millions of lives all across the globe, breaking boundaries between the Global North and the Global South and its consequences are felt by people alike. Its effect on the global health systems are clearly visible; however, the epidemic’s impact is not only restricted to health, rather it transcends to the social and economic lives of people as well; it is nuanced and multi-layered.

The coronavirus outbreak highlights the divide that exists in the world; it lays bare and reinforces deep-seated economic and social inequalities. It shows the differential effect it has on the privileged and the not- so privileged; the poor and the working classes are bearing a disproportionate brunt of the many implications of the virus. Existing structural inequalities are reinforced as the epidemic is playing out along lines of class, gender and wealth.

Fears about Covid-19 take an emotional toll. Many of us are glued to screens seeking updates on; numbers of new cases, government responses to the crisis, where to shop for essentials, and how to take care of each other’s health. It is a challenge for all of us to adjust to new working conditions, global shutdowns, social distancing and self- isolation. However, for those living in or at risk of poverty the challenges of coronavirus are multipled. Research by UNU-WIDER suggests that poverty levels could increase to the numbers seen almost 30 years ago, reversing the overall progress made to date in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 1- eradicating poverty. Estimates from  Save the Children suggest that in Africa alone Covid- 19 could push up to 30 million children into poverty.

Coronavirus is like a blackout that has caught half the world off guard in the elevator of inequality and the myth of a globalization that is supposed to benefit us all


Social distancing is a privilege

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends self-quarantining to prevent the risk of exposure, which includes advice for people not to share common areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, and living rooms, if they can. However, what if people live in a house that only has a bedroom which is also sometimes used as a kitchen or a living room and is shared by all family members, in some cases, even with extended families? Social distancing is indeed a privilege for people living in informal settlements which are close to each other and where families share kitchen and toilet facilities, and where it is impossible to follow lockdown guidelines and distance from each other by the recommended 2 metres.

Another vital question pertains to the advice of regularly and thoroughly washing hands. How do families with a community tap or a borehole or no regular access to water or a shared toilet with a dozen other families practice physical and social distancing? This is a challenge for even for well-to-do communities, for example reports suggest that Harare’s taps have been nearly dry for almost 10 years and yet the advice is to regularly wash hands and keep clean. Covid-19 is thus, bringing to light inequalities that exist across different countries and also in between people living in the same country.


No choice of working from home

A “Work from home” option is viable for office-goers; however, what about those who are dependent on weekly informal markets as their main source of income- for selling groceries or second- hand clothes? How would they manage their work online? They are left to choose between (safely) staying at home and compromising on feeding their family and taking a risk by going back to their work in the city to try to continue their lives as it is. If I was in this situation, I would chose to feed my family rather than abiding by social distancing rules. The International Labour Organization (ILO)  says that that almost 1.6 billion people (about half of the global working population) are in “immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed” by the economic impact of Covid-19 (ILO,2020 as cited in the Guardian) For those who struggle for daily wages and live hand- to- mouth, working from home is a far- fetched luxury.

Inequalities are expected to worsen with a disproportionate impact on groups who are more vulnerable to adverse labour market outcomes


Vulnerability amongst informal workers

For those already struggling to make ends meet, living pay-check to pay-check, the pandemic has brought more insecurities and uncertainties in the flow of income and working conditions. Often, it is seen that the government response is targeted at formal sector workers, which means that the workers in the informal economy are left to fend for themselves.  The ILO estimates that worldwide there are “around 2 billion informal workers, in a wide range of occupations and industries with most of them concentrated in emerging markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America” (ILO, 2020). In addition, the ILO estimates suggest that informal enterprises account for “eight of every ten businesses around the globe” with many of them small- scale family or community owned (ILO, 2020).


Image above showing informal workforce, by region in 2019- https://qz.com/1831326/coronavirus-imperils-billions-of-informal-workers-especially-women/

Workers in every country at all levels of jobs have been severely affected, many dependants on daily wages and in informal situations are forced to continue work in order to feed themselves and their families. Economic activity has severely reduced due to measures imposed to prevent the spreading of coronavirus, which has led to widespread layoffs and further pushed populations to unemployment, poverty and starvation.

The pandemic has resulted in an additional strain on people within the informal economy, especially women according to a report released by ILO, in early May (ILO, 2020). The stimulus packages  implemented by governments all over the world, have provided some relief from the effects of the pandemic and the related lockdowns, however, the non- registration of informal workers and businesses with authorities means that they are not entitled to receive state support in many countries. This, according to ILO, may lead to a 56% increase in the relative poverty for informal workers in low-income countries (ILO, 2020). People are left to choose between whether “to die from hunger or the virus”.


Gendered impacts of the virus

The impacts of the crisis are also gendered. Women are hit harder because they are at the front line with increased care responsibilities due to city shutdowns/quarantines; the burden of unpaid care work and domestic work, doing three times as much unpaid care work as men. Women also make up a significant share of workers in the health sector (70%) (doctors, nurses, emergency workers) and in the service industry (flight attendants, teachers) and are now working incredibly long hours to keep the vital fabric of society running.  As the job market shrinks, it is likely according to Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, that roles traditionally filled by women would be seeing men compete for it. For women, going back to their jobs would take a little more time since they will have to wait until their kids settle at school or any sick family member recovers.  The UN also warned that violence against women has increased more than 25% in  many parts around the world and that women are facing existential threats to their safety and freedom rights, and that  access to reproductive health care is also threatened.


Time for a coordinated global effort

It is only the start to understanding how Covid- 19 pandemic is affecting us all, but its clear the effects are unequal. The evidence available so far suggests that marginalized, low- income groups, and women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of this pandemic. They are more exposed to health risks, unable to shift their work remotely and are at an increased risk of falling into poverty. Without long- term structural changes, the deep- rooted inequalities exposed by the pandemic will merely intensify. It is time for a coordinated global effort to tackle the immediate effects of the crises as well as work towards specific measures to reduce disparities in health and the economy in the long- term. We must respond to the crisis in a nuanced way that takes into account the existence of all these realities of the marginalized groups and women. Policy makers around the world, are more concerned in mitigating the short term effects and effectively flattening the curve, however, it is equally important to pay attention to the long- term effects.  There is a greater need of global coordination to wipe the virus off completely because as long as it remains, even in one country, it has the possibility to re- enter and setting off its outbreak again in different countries. 


References:

A Covid-19 ‘new deal’ for informal workers? (2020) Oxford Business Group. Available at: https://oxfordbusinessgroup.com/news/covid-19-new-deal-informal-workers (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

Al Jazeera English on Twitter: “Harare’s taps have been nearly dry for almost 10 years now - and yet we recommend that residents not only self-isolate, but also regularly wash their hands.” https://t.co/JrKfhNZBH9 — #AJOpinion, by Karsten Noko’ / Twitter (no date) Twitter. Available at: https://twitter.com/AJEnglish/status/1241998458229272576 (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

As pandemic rages, women and girls face intensified risks (no date). Available at: /news/pandemic-rages-women-and-girls-face-intensified-risks (Accessed: 10 July 2020).
 
COVID-19 and the world of work  (2020). Available at: https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/coronavirus/lang--en/index.htm (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

Covid-19 could push 30 million African children into poverty (no date). Available at: https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/blogs/2020/covid-19-could-push-30-million-children-in-poverty (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

Estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty (2020) UNU-WIDER. Available at: https://www.wider.unu.edu/publication/estimates-impact-covid-19-global-poverty (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

Gendering pandemics: identifying the unequal impacts of COVID-19 (2020) Institute of Development Studies Alumni Network. Available at: https://alumni.ids.ac.uk/news/blogs-perspectives-provocations-initiatives/perspectives-provocations-initiatives-covid-19/527/527-Gendering-pandemics-identifying-the-unequal-impacts-of-COVID- (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

“Great Lockdown” to rival Great Depression with 3% hit to global economy, says IMF’ The Guardian, 14 April. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/14/great-lockdown-coronavirus-to-rival-great-depression-with-3-hit-to-global-economy-says-imf (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

‘No work, no food’: For Kibera dwellers, quarantine not an option (no date). Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/work-food-kibera-dwellers-quarantine-option-200320052738905.html (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

‘Policy Brief On Covid Impact On Women’ (2020). Available at: https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_april_2020.pdf (Accessed: 10 July 2020).
 
Riordan, L. (2020) The impact of COVID-19 on the world work is most severe since Second World War: ILO assessments and possible responses, International Cooperation and Development - European Commission. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/international-partnerships/stories/impact-covid-19-world-work-most-severe-second-world-war-ilo-assessments-and-possible_en (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

Roelen, K. (2020a) ‘Coronavirus and poverty: we can’t fight one without tackling the other’, Poverty Unpacked, 23 March. Available at: https://poverty-unpacked.org/2020/03/23/coronavirus-and-poverty-we-cant-fight-one-without-tackling-the-other/ (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

Roelen, K. (2020b) ‘Episode #2: Coronavirus and poverty, and how we are not all equal in the face of a pandemic’, Poverty Unpacked, 9 April. Available at: https://poverty-unpacked.org/2020/04/09/episode-2-coronavirus-and-poverty-and-how-we-are-not-all-equal-in-the-face-of-a-pandemic/ (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

The impact of COVID-19 is all down to inequality (no date) openDemocracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/impact-covid-19-all-down-inequality/ (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

To fight Covid-19, only the formal economy is getting tax breaks. The informal economy may be asked to foot the bill (no date) The International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD). Available at: https://www.ictd.ac/blog/covid-coronavirus-tax-breaks-informal-economy-workers/ (Accessed: 30 June 2020).

Villarreal, A. (2020) ‘Coronavirus pandemic exacerbates inequalities for women, UN warns’, The Guardian, 11 April. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/11/un-coronavirus-pandemic-gender-inequalities-women (Accessed: 10 July 2020).

This is one a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2019-2020 Spring Term: Decolonizing Development begins in an unlikely location; What does our criticism of urban sustainability reveal about the hypocrisy of the West?; The Decade that Decides Our Future; Applying a feminist economics lens to analyse the implementation of Universal Credit on women in the UK; Covid-19 and Child Labour in Dhaka: Call for reviewed policy actions; and Impact of Covid-19 on inequalities in the world of work.

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