Covid-19: social impact By Foqia Sadiq Khan

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Two significant reports by Christian Aid and Save the Children on the social impact of Covid have been in the spotlight recently. It is worthwhile to review some commentary on their findings.

According to the Christian Aid report, as a result of the pandemic, deep inequalities have been exacerbated around the world leading to unemployment and food insecurity amongst the poorest countries. However, this is just the beginning as the political, economic and social impact is still unfolding.

The pandemic could lead to double the number of people facing acute hunger, making it to a quarter billion this year in need of urgent support. Food costs have been increasing in some countries. In India, 80 million migrant workers have been unemployed, leading to homelessness and hunger.

Similarly, primary healthcare such as maternity care and immunization have been seriously disrupted. In many places, the disruption to non-Covid related healthcare might lead to more deaths than those caused by the pandemic.

Regular hand-washing is recommended as a precaution against Covid-19. However, the poor countries have the majority with poor sanitation that makes hand-washing difficult. As per the report, 40 percent of the world’s population lacks access to hand-washing facilities at home.

Save the Children has warned that about 10 million children may never be able to join back their schools. It is an “unprecedented education emergency” and governments need to invest in education urgently to overcome it. All over the world, an entire generation of school going children’s education has been disrupted.

Save the Children has also identified Pakistan as one of the 12 countries where children are at greater risk of being left out of formal education. The world made a promise to provide access to quality education to children by 2030 under the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. This target, already difficult to achieve, is likely to further fall behind by years due to the impact of the pandemic.

According to Christian Aid, 9 out of 10 school students in the world have suffered a loss of learning and education. Many, particularly girls, may never return to their schools. Past experience has shown that school closures led to higher dropout rates for girls. That in return led to increase in child labour, sexual abuse, neglect, early marriages, and teenage pregnancies.

The Christian Aid report discusses the gendered impact of the pandemic as well. Women are bearing huge economic and social burdens. They work in the social care and health sectors. Women work in large numbers in the informal economy that has suffered a great setback due to the pandemic. So they may face job insecurity. They also do more care work in their homes and are exposed to risks.

Both the reports have called for debt repayments to be held off for the low-income countries. Christian Aid has called for a “comprehensive” cancellation of 12 months principal debt and interest payments for the 76 low-income countries. It could be the most effective way to make resources available for countries that have been adversely affected by Covid. Save the Children has made an appeal to the commercial creditors to “suspend” repayments of debt for low-income countries. It would give access to $14 billion for education purposes that is much needed.

Christian Aid has also urged a crackdown on tax avoidance and abuse. It called for the introduction of a wealth tax. As an example, if India were to levy a flat rate of four percent tax on the wealth of its 953 ultra-rich households, it could raise a little more than one percent of its GDP and it could enable the government to double its budget on health. The picture in Pakistan may not be too different.

Tailpiece: I covered Jacob Shapiro, Ali Cheema and co-authors’ excellent study on ‘Candidate Attributes and Political Accountability’ on behalf of the International Growth Centre in my previous column on information and power relations published on July 14, 2020 in these pages. I made an inference about information and clientelism on the basis of results of the study; though the focus of the research on “greater accountability of local governments to their citizens”. The inference about information was made since that particular column focused on it. I could not discuss the full context of the study due to space constraints last time but attempting to do so now.

The important question addressed in the above-mentioned study was the design of local governments that make them rely financially on provincial governments. It denies them rule of law-based fiscal autonomy. Therefore, there is a need for meaningful reforms to ensure the fiscal autonomy of the local governments, otherwise they are used as tools of patronage for higher level politicians. When connections of power are the driving force for voters, it is likely going to weaken local accountability.

There is also a need to conduct vigorous ‘performance audits’ of local governments and promote out-of-box solutions that increase accountability of local electoral mechanisms. The results of this study were made part of the provincial Finance Commission’s recommendations to the government of Punjab a few years ago.

To sum it up, it is now well documented that countries with effective local governments responded much better to the challenges of Covid-19. That is one more reason to institute fiscally and administratively autonomous local governments in Pakistan.