Social Distancing in Developing Countries

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SEATTLE, Washington — Social Distancing has been one of the leading strategies to battling the coronavirus pandemic and slowing the spread of the virus in most developed countries. Despite the economic repercussions of shutting down all non-essential businesses, the benefits and lives saved through social distancing in developed nations far outweigh the costs. In developing countries, however, it is not as simple as staying home. Due to lacking tests, health resources and infrastructure, developing nations are not well equipped to battle a pandemic, and social distancing might harm more than help. The nature of people’s jobs and lifestyle in addition to the lack of access to certain resources prevent social distancing from having the same effect in developing countries as it does in developed countries.

Working from Home

While many individuals in European countries or the United States are able to work from home, this is not the case for many in developing countries. Working from home is made easy through access to technology such as laptops and the internet. The lack of resources in developing countries makes this solution unrealistic on a large scale. More importantly, the nature of people’s work has a significant impact on their ability to work from home. In developing countries and underserved areas around the world, many people rely on hands-on jobs every day to feed their families.

The developing world is facing Income losses of more than than $220 billion. Strict lockdowns in these places could have devastating impacts on unemployment rates, resulting in exacerbated inequalities and increased rates of poverty, food insecurity, preventable diseases and deaths. Many people work in the informal sector and receive daily cash wages with no access to any kind of unemployment benefits or safety net. Many people in developing countries support themselves and their families through self-employment. This makes it difficult to identify those who are struggling in order to provide aid.

Economic Impact

Phone interviews of poor individuals in rural Bangladesh have shown that concerns regarding employment and access to basic needs such as food are more pressing than health. In Nepal, labor hours decreased by 50 percent, which is less than even the lowest seasons in the agricultural crop cycle as a result of the lockdown. While it is difficult to know how the costs of lockdowns in developing countries would compare to the effects of COVID-19, these are important factors to consider.

Even in underserved areas untouched by the virus, individuals might be out of work and struggling to feed their families as a result of shutdowns. Ecuador is the heart of the coronavirus outbreak in Latin America, with hospitals and mortuaries struggling to keep up with new cases. Countries such as Paraguay, however, which has one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in South America, has been equally impacted economically. In Paraguay, about 65 percent of working people are employed in the informal sector and are facing serious economic declines with no aid available as a result of shutdowns. More than 90 countries have requested assistance from the IMF. Increased debt and political instability threaten poor countries globally.

Overcrowded Living Situations

Many people in underserved communities, especially in urban and densely populated areas, live in rooms with sometimes more than a dozen people. Social distancing is impossible for many people living in these conditions around the world. Living conditions in developing countries make it very difficult to slow the spread of the virus. When combined with the economic impacts of shutdowns, they may have larger and more widespread impacts than the impacts of COVID-19 alone.

Managing director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, along with the IMF board, plans to double the funds for an emergency program. IMF experts are working to establish credit solutions for developing countries. Additionally, the IMF and World Bank are potentially permitting very poor countries to delay debt payments. According to Georgieva, “This pandemic will not be over until it is over everywhere,” reinforcing the idea that foreign aid from developed countries is crucial. Solutions that prove effective in wealthy nations do not necessarily have the same results everywhere. Social distancing in developing nations is far from realistic, and economic shutdowns have their own economic repercussions without outside support.

While this week’s agreement by G-20 nations to suspend debt payments until December for the poorest countries on the continent provides much-needed relief, African leaders caution that this measure is “not enough” in light of the current pandemic. With these concerns in mind, The Borgen Project urges Members of Congress to ensure additional resources for the State Department, USAID and our other development agencies as Congress considers the next emergency supplemental. To send an email to Congress, follow this link.

Maia Cullen
Photo: Foreign Policy

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