Colombia: Venezuelan migrants return to their native country during the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Nadège Mazars/NRC

The little talked about side-effects of Covid-19

By Jan Egeland|Published 27. Oct 2020
The economic impacts of the coronavirus are devastating communities in the world’s poorest places.

This opinion piece was first published by Al Jazeera.

In March, we predicted that the 70 million people fleeing violence and persecution across the world would be hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. I underestimated the impact of the disease. Its knock-on effects are proving more devastating than the virus itself.

This week my organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, published a report, Downward Spiral, showing that the world’s most vulnerable communities are facing a quadruple crisis because of the Covid-19 pandemic: a health crisis, a hunger crisis, a homelessness crisis and an education crisis.

Based on research across 14 countries, including a survey of 1,400 refugees and crisis-affected people, we found a staggering 77 per cent had lost their jobs or income since the start of the pandemic. The economic shock to already vulnerable communities is pushing them further into destitution. For a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, or a Yemeni mother forced to flee her home because of air raids, even a small loss of income can be devastating.

Three out of four people hit

Most seriously, a hunger pandemic is looming. The World Food Programme warned in June that the number of people severely hungry could soar from 146 million to 270 million by the end of the year. Our report found that 73 per cent of people surveyed had had to cut meals for themselves or their families. These are people already facing food crises because of conflict, or natural phenomena like droughts or plagues of locusts.

Many people we spoke to in conflict countries say they are more afraid of the hunger crisis brought on by Covid-19 than they are of being killed by the disease itself.

The unfolding crisis of homelessness is another side-effect of the coronavirus. Seventy-one percent of respondents told us they had difficulty paying rent or other basic housing costs. Many reported having been evicted since March. These are people who have already had to flee violence and persecution, some multiple times.

We spoke to a refugee mother of six in Uganda who was evicted because she owed $555 for four months’ rent arrears. She had been unable to gather enough money to cover her rent since the pandemic hit. The money that kept her head above water – remittances from family working in Australia – came to a halt. Her situation is dire but, sadly, not unique.

Another consequence of the loss of income for displaced people is that their children are even less likely to go to school. At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren – 463 million children globally – were unable to access remote learning when Covid-19 shuttered their schools, according to UNICEF. Three in four respondents who had children told us they were less likely to send them to school because of their current economic situation, brought on by Covid-19. The right of these children to go to school and their future prospects are being undermined. For those children who relied on school meals for their nutritional needs, hunger also looms.

We are creating a lost Covid generation.

An opportunity for political leadership

It is understandable that countries look inward and prioritise their citizens during a moment of such global uncertainty. Rich countries have raced to protect their people from the disease and expand social safety nets as well as support businesses. Unfortunately, these are not options for countries like Afghanistan or Yemen.

But Covid-19 is also a reminder that humanity’s problems do not stop at borders. Every part of the world has been affected by the virus, and the same is true for its economic impacts. Inward-looking policies will not solve global, interconnected problems.

Quick and decisive global action is required to stem the growing catastrophe that crisis-affected communities are facing. The G20 countries will convene in Saudi Arabia in November. They should take three concrete actions to improve the lives of millions being hammered by the economic impacts of the pandemic:

First, they must commit to fully fund the United Nations Covid-19 humanitarian aid appeals for both 2020 and 2021. This year’s $10 billion appeal is currently only 26 per cent funded. Rich G20 and OECD nations invested $11 trillion in stimulus packages to save their economies, that is 100 times what aid organisations need to help the world’s poorest.

Second, G20 leaders must agree a comprehensive debt-relief plan for conflict-affected and refugee-hosting nations. Even the World Bank has said there needs to be broader international action than its existing loans and grants and those by other financial institutions. The G20 made this happen during the 2007 financial crisis. It must do it again for today’s unprecedented human crisis.

Finally, G20 leaders must call for extending social protection for vulnerable communities. Displaced children, women and men are often discriminated against and stigmatised, excluded from services and the labour market. The governments hosting them must include them in economic response plans and social safety nets; they must protect them from eviction. And the governments without the resources to do this must get support from those better off.

The Riyadh gathering is a unique opportunity for the world’s powers to show international solidarity towards protecting the world’s most vulnerable people against the impacts of Covid-19. It requires not only a recognition of the problem but real political leadership to address it.