The poor of the world must not be forgotten
Forty million people could die from the coronavirus if urgent measures are not taken to contain the contagion. If the catastrophic loss of lives forecast by the Imperial College of London has to be averted, the world should help the poor and homeless. Lockdowns, quarantines, e-learning and work from home are among the measures employed to fight the disruption wrought by the COVID-19 virus. People can ride out the virus from the comfort of their homes if they have steady jobs, enough money for food and access to affordable healthcare. That’s a luxury for people in refugee camps and shanties around the world. The poor have no homes and no safety net. They are totally exposed to the virus. So it’s no surprise when research shows that people in the lower strata are more likely to contract the disease and die from it. These people live in cramped accommodations, sharing it with many others, and that raises the chance of infections. The virus-fighting measures result in job loss for people dependent on manual labour, especially the daily wage-earners, depriving them of money that could buy food and medicines. The predicament of migrant labour in India offers a striking example. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a 21-day national lockdown, labourers ––who worked in fields, factories, restaurants and even on the streets –– lost jobs and decided to return to their villages. Hundreds of thousands flocked to bus stations at a time of social distancing. Many more preferred to walk home thousands of miles away. Some of them would have carried to the virus the villages which lack basic healthcare infrastructure. Suddenly the smart move looked ironic: with no consideration for the poor, it could very well hurt the people it was intended to help. Even the fiscal stimulus packages ignored them. The Indian scenario is symptomatic of the rich-poor divide around the world in responding to the challenge posed by the virus.
Poor countries with weak healthcare systems are struggling to fight the virus, while affluent nations are unlocking trillions of dollars in stimulus to save businesses. Never has the social and economic inequality been so stark, and the pandemic sheds a light on that chasm. This is the biggest health crisis of our times. A crisis that requires an international response, and a plan to help low-income communities. International institutions should look at ways to write off the debt of poor countries, and wealthy nations must provide aid and healthcare facilities to needy nations. Free testing and free treatment must be provided to low-income groups. This virus threatens millions. The less fortunate among us will bear the brunt.