Aloysius John, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting the lives of everyone and experiencing it differs greatly according to age, household composition, the income level and the geographical location. The pandemic is likely to expose and extend existing inequalities, creating significant new forms of vulnerabilities and hardship especially among the poorest and the most vulnerable families who were already living in precarious conditions.
The pandemic has widened social and economic divisions, consequently leading to economic inequality for low income families and the poorest and most vulnerable families. Social distancing and lockdown have made it difficult to maintain routine budgetary practices for managing on a low income especially for those in precarious situations. In Venezuela - and this is only one of the stories of serious difficulties collected by Caritas – Rosa, an employee in a health clinic, has no choice but to risk her life so she can support her daughter and her five grandchildren who live with her.
The families are undergoing a stressful time which includes isolation. In many of the poorest families, where social encounter is a key factor for living in society, social distancing resulted in this lack of vital social contact with others leading to isolation and in some cases anxiety and depression. Maria Dominguez, a migrant received at a migrant centre in Johannesburg, said: “Not being able to meet the other women to share and talk with them was a painful experience and the isolation imposed through the lockdown really made me anxious”.
In some families, the fact that the mother herself was anxious affected the children, who feel the parent’s stress. Many cases of children having feelings of anxiety due to all the changes they are experiencing are facts that have been observed and must be taken into consideration as well. Prolonged stress can have an effect on a child’s development and this must be addressed through psychosocial accompaniment to help combat the negative impact of stress and anxiety.
One of the major indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is on low income families in the west and the poorest families in the poorer countries. Due to the lockdown and the preventive measures taken to protect against the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of families have lost their jobs and have slipped into precarious economic conditions. In India, Savariamma said, “I was working in a restaurant and earning the family income of 600 Rupees per month, but since the lockdown, I cannot go to work and I am the only breadwinner for the whole family. Today we are borrowing and getting food from the Diocesan Caritas”. This is the condition millions of people around the world live in.
For those families reliant on hourly work, they are living without any means and do not have other possibilities than to be forced to stand in a queue for getting their food packet from the food banks or other forms of emergency activity. It is for this reason that Caritas Internationalis has put in place the COVID-19 Response Fund, which aims at primarily giving food assistance and also basic items for personal hygiene, while at the same time promoting raising awareness on the pandemic.
In many countries in Africa and Latin America, where the pandemic has not affected people as seriously as in Europe and the US, families are confronted with the difficulty of procuring basic food items due to the soaring prices. Since the supply chain was disrupted and completely affected, there is scarcity of basic commodities and prices are not controlled. Therefore because of limited funds in the family budget, for the poorest people it impossible to get basic food items. This leads to high inequality created by the high cost of living.
The Coronavirus impact has deepened inequality, and inequality has worsened the spread of the pandemic. When the virus hit societies, it deepened the consequences of inequality, and the losers are the poorest of today’s polarised economies and labour markets. In many cases such as in India and South Africa, those families in lower economic strata were most exposed to catch the disease. In Mumbai, the casualties were among the poorer and low income families. And, if they escaped the virus, they still became victims of the economic impact and health care as a result of quarantines and other measures. The preventive measures were more beneficial for richer communities thus creating inequality among the families before the virus.
One of the major dangers for the future post-COVID situation is the high level of inequality which itself may be acting as a vector and multiplier of the spread of the pandemic and its serious impact on families, especially the poorest living in harsh conditions. Poverty conditions and inequality contribute to exacerbating the propagation of the pandemic.
In order to address this issue, Caritas India is organising awareness building activities for the poorest families to sensitise them on the dangers of the pandemic and how to protect themselves against it. They are given a series of training and are accompanied to maintain a certain level of hygiene in their living areas.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also having a significant effect on occupations with high female employment such as restaurants and hospitality. This is affected when both parents are working from home. Often there is an expectation that women will take on more of managing the household, especially if there are children, in order to create a better work environment for their husbands or male partner. In the case of single mothers, they must handle the child care demands on their own. The pandemic clearly indicates that childcare is affected when our economic system isn't working, and the consequence is women will be especially burdened leading to inequalities.
Furthermore, for many poor families, the closure of schools due to the lockdown has meant greater expenses for the nutrition of their children. In fact, according to the World Food Programme, more than 320 million children around the world are now missing out on school meals due to school closures because of COVID-19. Many of these children are from poor families and depend on the daily meals they receive at school.
Unless the poorest and the most vulnerable families are taken care of, given awareness building and given the means of survival, they will be the first victims of the pandemic and also vector of propagation. This is a priority that must be addressed by the decision makers and humanitarian organisations.