Even though 80 per cent of the extreme poor in Asia Pacific were lifted of poverty by 2015, rising inequality remains a great cause of concern. With a high number of informal labourers, 60 percent of the Asian population are not covered by any social protection and 40 percent have no access to healthcare. The COVID 19 pandemic has worsened the situation in the region, increasing the damage on lives and livelihoods. Governments are struggling to provide emergency health care for COVID 19 testing, tracing and treatments.
During the lockdowns in the early months of 2020, the informal sector and the most marginalised groups have suffered the most. These populations are mostly located in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas, vulnerable sectors such as children and orphans, LGBTQI, persons discriminated based on work and descent, sex workers, homeless persons, migrant workers, small and marginal farmers, daily wage workers in the urban areas – the list goes on.
Various agencies like the International Monetary Fund have projected the slump in growth or even negative growth for the countries in the region. In South Asia job losses and decreased opportunities for livelihood will likely push 132 million people to extreme poverty.
Income insecurity is closely associated with food security and hunger. Several cases of hunger have already been reported in South Asia, gravely affecting people’s overall health and vulnerability. In South Asia, gaps in the public health infrastructure pose serious challenges to the governments to handle COVID 19 testing, contact tracing and treatment.
All over Asia, the pandemic lockdowns have also resulted in the rise in gender-based violence and the burden of increased unpaid work for women.
While the pandemic has brazenly exposed the various faces of inequality, new challenges have emerged in relation to peace and human rights.
With regard to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), South Asia initially made some progress but the pandemic, has since reversed the trend. In the Southeast Asia is likewise expected to slip off its SDG targets with the outbreak of cases.
On the front of income inequality during the pandemic, on one hand when about 500 million more people could be pushed into poverty globally as a result of the pandemic and the economic downturn, there are trends of biggest companies profiteering at the same time. The major tech firms expected to make 46 billion USD more profit in 2020 than before the pandemic. Most of the profit is paid to their shareholders – while taxes are avoided. The picture in Asia Pacific can be imagined in comparison.
The causes of inequality among the rich and poor countries are also rooted in the extortive debt system in the World. For example, over US$300 billion is being spent annually by the Global South for public external debt payments to bilateral and multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and IMF, private banks, speculators, and investors in government bonds and securities.
As immediate measures, most affected countries in Asia Pacific provided subsidies for testing and treatment of the disease. They announced packages for revival of economy including the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through providing tax-exemptions and subsidies. Despite several measures undertaken by the governments, the fact remained that hunger, discrimination and exclusion were widely reported in some countries, mainly in South Asia. Across the region the governments have invoked emergency clauses during the pandemic to curtail freedom of association and limit other human rights. Due to restrictions on media, facts could not come out clearly. But there is a prevailing sense that many governments under-reported the COVID cases across the regions. Several countries provided cash support, but there were issues of exclusion and sufficiency.
On to 2021, the quick development and massive manufacturing of vaccines give hope for countries to recover. Whilst the vaccines are universally acknowledged to be a global good and should be universally distributed, inequality in access and distribution has become a major issue. Rich countries have cornered the deals, while the poor countries that could barely afford to contain any outbreak of the virus, have been left with minimal allocations. The economic system that controls patents and intellectual properties is once again contested as the WTO rules on TRIPS enforce restrictions on these essential medical products. Vaccinating the people would have given them the badly-needed shield against the spread of COVID, and restart economic activities with a considerable amount of confidence, accompanying safety protocols.
At the global level a coalition of over 400 CSOs working on human rights and sustainable development issued a 12-point demand charter asking for just recovery that tackles the interlinked challenges of providing universal healthcare, reducing inequalities and guaranteeing human rights; alongside the critical need to re-think our economies in response to the parallel crises of climate change and biodiversity.
At national level, during the lockdown CSOs distributed of food packets to vulnerable people, issued statements and found new sources to support the people working in informal sectors and monitored the government relief services.
It is necessary for the governments to make financial and policy commitments with a human rights based approach with clear social and environmental conditions. Its time to take progressive measures to bridge income inequality among the poor and rich by tax justice, fully operational social protection systems etc. and take long term policy measures towards sustainability and environmental protection keeping the objectives of Agenda 2030 and Paris Climate deal in mind.
Download the full report here.
This is the second edition of the report documenting the impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Inequalities in Asia.