The Covid-19 pandemic has been a time of unprecedented uncertainty for the entire humanitarian sector globally. While there have been many lessons learnt over the years in the wake of floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, communal and civil strife, droughts, refugee crises and even epidemics like SARS, bird flu and Ebola, Covid-19, because of its geographical reach and speed of transmission has posed an entirely new challenge for governments, the health sector and development agencies.
A global recession appears to be clearly on the cards and the huge pressure on public finances across the globe would make the process of recovery much harder.
Most of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries are struggling with the severe impact of Covid-19 at home and so there would be constraints for international donor funding to the developing countries affected both directly and indirectly by the pandemic. Nonetheless, it is critical that these fund flows continues even during the crisis.
In India, we are witnessing how some of the states with the best health systems are struggling to contain the pandemic in its early stages; it is not hard to imagine how crippling it would be for the more backward states with much weaker health systems. Hopefully, the lockdown and attendant social distancing and hygiene measures, despite their limitations in our context may reduce the direct incidence and mortality rates in India.
The economic impact on several sections of our population is bound to be severe. Be it the 120 Mn+ migrants with no avenues for income generation, farm labour and farmers impacted by the reduced consumption of agricultural and related produce, small and informal businesses and employees in the sectors most directly impacted by the crisis, a very significant proportion of our population would face significant levels of distress.
The impact on families, especially, children could be disastrous unless we take bold policy measures to step in and avert the crisis.
As families and caregivers get impacted, the most vulnerable and marginalised children, especially girls, will be exposed to multi-dimensional risks. This includes disruption to their healthcare, protection, education and overall wellbeing, including social interaction with friends, peers, family members, teachers and adult caregivers.
Loss of income, food insecurity and closure of schools and day care centers, together with movement restrictions, could result in a steep decline in the already low nutritional status of children; women & adolescent girls.
The current crisis clearly requires specific responses to some of the social issues for which several recommendations have been made and are being implemented. But underlying all this is a recognition that we would need a two-fold economic policy response.
First, we need an emergency response to avert a humanitarian disaster. At the same time, as we consider life after Covid-19, with our already vulnerable economy having suffered a severe body blow we would need a long-term economic response as well. The government would clearly need to inject large doses of liquidity into the system with a series of initiatives that would revive agriculture, trade, commerce and industry and promote consumption & growth, even with their attendant fiscal challenges.
Ramping up food and social security schemes through alternatives such as cash transfers & food vouchers, food distribution & care packs for people in isolation, wage compensation and paid leave are some of the measures that would help in the short term.
The unprecedented global reach of Covid-19 will require governments and international donors to make tough choices as they struggle to maintain existing support. Covid-19 is a stark and frightening wake-up call to the world that pandemics show no respect for national boundaries.
If we are going to beat this crisis and recover from its consequences, international cooperation would be more important than ever before.
Our country has faced several crises before – we have always come out stronger. Once the human tragedy of this pandemic is over, we would all need to redouble our efforts to build prosperity, climate security, and better lives for all.