“Exceptionally Dire”: Secondary Impacts of Covid-19 Could Increase Global Poverty and Hunger

International experts warn of humanitarian catastrophes as the fight against the novel coronavirus draws resources from other health campaigns.

TOPSHOT - Rachael Mwikali of Coalition for grassroots human rights defenders Kenya (CGHRD'S Kenya) waits on an alley during their food distribution, a bag contains 2kg of maize flour, 1kg each of sugar and rice, soap, tea, salt and a face mask, to vulnerable families that have lost their income in the menace of the COVID 19 coronavirus in Mathare slum, Nairobi, on April 25, 2020. - President Kenyatta annouced to the nation to extend another 21 days of night curfiew. (Photo by Fredrik Lerneryd / AFP) (Photo by FREDRIK LERNERYD/AFP via Getty Images)
Rachael Mwikali of Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders Kenya waits in an alley during their food distribution to vulnerable families that have lost their income due to the novel coronavirus in Mathare slum, Nairobi, on April 25, 2020. Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd/AFP via Getty Images

More than 240,000 people worldwide have already died of Covid-19, and before the pandemic finishes, it could kill hundreds of thousands, even millions, more. But the final toll is destined to be far higher than just those who die of Covid-19. Experts warn that deaths from secondary impacts — poverty, hunger, diseases, and violence exacerbated by the pandemic — may dwarf the number of those who die of the novel coronavirus itself.

A new analysis by researchers from King’s College London and Australian National University, under the aegis of the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, for example, warns that the economic contraction caused by Covid-19 could push an additional 500 million people — about 8 percent of the Earth’s population — into poverty, reversing 30 years of economic improvement. “We were surprised at the sheer scale of the potential poverty tsunami that could follow Covid-19 in developing countries,” said Andy Sumner, one of the study’s authors.

Not surprisingly, such financial fallout has grim knock-on effects. “I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe,” warned David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Program. “Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the specter of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.” A new study by the WFP found that lockdowns and the economic recession caused by Covid-19 may exacerbate an already dire worldwide hunger crisis, almost doubling the number of people who could go hungry, pushing a total of 265 million people to the brink of starvation by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization notes that a diversion of resources could have especially devastating effects on the fight against malaria. Under a worst-case scenario, in which all insecticide-treated bed net campaigns are suspended, and there is a 75% reduction in access to effective antimalarial medicines, fatalities from the mosquito-borne illness could reach 769,000 — double the number of deaths in 2018 — effectively wiping out 20 years of gains in suppressing malaria mortality. Similarly, a new analysis by researchers at Imperial College London found that in low- and middle-income countries, disruptions to health services could cause deaths from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria to increase by up to 10, 20, and 36 percent respectively over five years.

“As Covid-19 cases surge worldwide, the survival of pregnant women and children is at great risk due to strained healthcare systems, and the disruption of life-saving health services,” said Dr. Stefan Peterson, associate director and global chief of health at the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. In fact, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health warn, for example, that the impact of the pandemic to newborn, child, and adolescent health and nutrition services might lead to the deaths of 1.2 million children — a 45 percent increase over existing child mortality levels.

The overall death toll among the young may actually be exponentially higher according to a recent report from the Christian aid organization, World Vision. An analysis of 24 countries with existing humanitarian crises — from Afghanistan to Yemen — found that as many as 30 million children’s lives are at risk from other diseases, like diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus, if health care systems are swamped by the pandemic and resources are diverted from immunizations. “We are wrong if we think this is not a children’s disease,” said Andrew Morley, World Vision’s president and chief executive. “Experience tells us that when epidemics overwhelm health systems, the impact on children is deadly.”

Among youths, girls will suffer most according to a recent analysis by Plan International, an aid organization that advocates for children’s rights and equality for girls. Since women and girls undertake more than three-quarters of unpaid care and, in rural communities and low-income countries, spend up to 14 hours a day on such work, girls will likely be at greater risk of infection. But this is just one type of collateral damage. “Covid-19 shutdowns will disrupt early learning, formal education and livelihoods,” according to the report. “Measures to curb the disease have worsened existing inequalities, forcing girls out of school and placing them at heightened risk of violence in their home.”

UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, notes that even before the Covid-19 pandemic, an estimated one in three women had experienced physical or sexual abuse. Confinement, lockdowns, and quarantines coupled with deteriorating socioeconomic conditions have now created a perfect storm. “These factors significantly increase the risks of intimate partner violence, with refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons among the most vulnerable,” according to the agency. But the “shadow pandemic” of violence against girls and women extends far beyond refugees and displaced war victims, with reports of domestic violence having increased by 30% in France, while calls to help lines have jumped 30% in Cyprus and 33% in Singapore.

The United Nations study forecasts that the greatest economic impact of Covid-19 will be in sub-Saharan Africa, where cases are rapidly increasing and, if projections prove accurate, “up to half of the new poor will live.” There, the effects will be felt in infant and maternal mortality, undernutrition, malnourishment, and educational achievement, among other indicators.

Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, explained that preventative measures aimed at countering Covid-19 were also impediments to humanitarian aid, leaving poor people without access to food. “We’re going to see significant impacts on malnutrition rates,” she told The Intercept. “And we’re seeing all sorts of secondary impacts. For example, there’s a polio outbreak in Niger because they stopped vaccinating.” Between hunger and disease, poverty and violence, the follow-on effects of Covid-19 threaten to be as wide-ranging as they are lethal. “There are just so many different unexpected consequences,” said Lamarche. “It’s extremely disheartening.  And it’s going to be exceptionally dire.”

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