Monday, 3 October, 2022

COVID-19: Yet Again Poor Are Hardest Hit

Dr. Achyut Tiwari


Amid COVID-19 pandemic, we have observed weeks of lockdown in Nepal and people are struggling hard to manage bread and butter in this difficult time. The limited market hours are chaotic due to great fear of transmission of the deadly virus while shopping. There has been a great hope among Nepali people to control the spread of COVID-19 at this stage, and the government and general public are highly committed to fight against the pandemic.
However, the condition could been worse if the viruses had already reached out of Kathmandu through people coming from abroad flights before we declared lockdown, and soaring number of people coming back home from India. Some aspects of poverty, available health facilities and potentiality of COVID-19 outbreak among poor and marginalised people are analysed here. Among 30 million people of Nepal almost 25 per cent are living below the poverty line, on 50 cents per day, which makes the nation one of the poorest in the world.
Experts claim that about five million people are malnourished in Nepal mainly due to high food prices and partial abandonment of rural agriculture exacerbating the poverty. The numerous natural disasters and topographic complexities influence the country’s ability to mitigate poverty, rampant corruption and abuses of authority leads to a biased economic system and unfair distribution of resources are contributing to poverty cycle in Nepal.
Poverty is clearly reflected with higher child mortality in Nepal, where the impoverished region showed 35 deaths among 1000 children before their fifth birthday (record of 2016). Despite reliance of 85 per cent Nepalis on agriculture as the main form of sustenance, there is a lack of advanced farming system and proper infrastructure for farmers. On the other hand unemployment (3.4 percent) and underemployment are worsening poverty. Soaring rural to urban migration is also increasing urban poverty in Nepal.
At a time when new coronavirus is causing havoc even in rich countries with superior health services, it is highly worrying how Nepal with 25 per cent people below poverty line and 5.8 percent of total expenditure on health sector can possibly fight against this deadly viral epidemic. The virus has reached all over poor countries around the globe. Its impact to poor people has been overlooked globally and Nepal is not an exception. Around 5 per cent of infected people will be seriously sick and most of them require intensive medical care. And poor nations' health-care systems are in no position to cope with this, and many cannot deal with the infectious diseases they already know.
The pandemic like COVID-19 know no boundaries and no affinity to any human races. Fortunately, all the cases in Nepal so far were "imported" except one and the government says that the lockdown would be highly critical to avoid local transmission of the virus. Despite the national lockdown, the infected people have already travelled far and wide before they were tested positive for the virus prior to national lockdown. Nepal is trying hard to track the routes of infected people who might have transmitted the virus to others while travelling and meeting people, and of course this is a very tough task.
There is high risk of COVID-19 to poor and marginalised as always in every disaster. We have already seen the miserable condition of the workers who sustain their livelihood from daily wages. Further the transmission could be highly disastrous for people living in slums owing to their poor sanitation. According to reports, it is estimated that around 10 per cent of the urban population lives in informal settlements in Nepal and they could be highly vulnerable in case of epidemic.
Health spending per head in Nepal is far less than that of developed countries hence we cannot handle the COVID-19 pandemics in case it spreads as in case of Europe and USA. Not only from Nepal, all the poor and marginalised people around the globe will bear similar consequences. Throughout history, the poor have been hardest-hit by all pandemics, as most people who die of AIDS are African and about 6 per cent of India’s population was wiped out by The Spanish flu. Almost every developing country has ordered lockdowns realising the fact that the costs of pandemic outweigh the ruining of economy due to lockdown.
The population of young people in poor countries may be larger, but many of them may have weak lungs or immune systems, because of malnutrition, tuberculosis or HIV. In this context the rural people may get the virus later, but they will probably still get it. Lockdowns will be still harder for the poor people who are struggling with the basic necessities and cannot even imagine of having access to healthy food including fruits and fresh vegetables.
The poor people associated with tourism, trade, low wage labour and remittances in Nepal will be highly affected by lockdown, and poor countries like Nepal cannot afford substantial support to the needy in this tough time. Remittance has been a significant sources of GDP and per capita income in Nepal covering almost 29 per cent (as of 2017) which is considered as a safety-net in hard times. This may tumble as migrants in rich countries lose their jobs. Likewise, the country's travel and tourism is contributing about 7.9 per cent (as of 2018) of National GDP, and the poor people clinging to this sector would have tough time in the days to come.
An estimated two million Nepalis live and work in India, many as low wage labourers. They have started walking home after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a complete lockdown on March 24, and they are stuck at different points while returning home. Reaching out to poor and marginalised is crucial both for avoiding the viral transmission and supporting them in their needs of daily living.

(Dr. Tiwari is an Assistant Professor at the Central Department of Botany, TU.