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    Impact of COVID-19 on Women and Children in South Asia

    FEA09-Impact-of-012The onset of the Coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 set off a series of health and economic crises that feed upon each other. The health crisis exacerbates the economic crisis by disrupting supply chains, throwing large number of people (particularly those working in the informal sector) out of work and closing down large numbers of enterprises – particularly micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME).

    The economic crisis, in turn, exacerbates the health crisis for a number of reasons – not the least of which is the fact that the economic slowdown reduces the resources needed to combat the health crisis. Furthermore, the needs of both the health recovery and the economic recovery are competing for the same resources. The fact that this virus has had a global impact and some of the richest countries in the world (e.g. the US and Western Europe) are among the worst affected implies that the short-run effect of the crisis does not impact less developed countries (LDCs) unduly. However, the longer-term effects of the crisis may have deleterious effects on LDCs (particularly women and children in these countries) more than in richer countries.

    This essay analyses some of the short-run and medium-terms impacts of the corona crisis in South Asia, particularly on the women and children of the region. As unemployment rose sharply in the wake of the onset of the crisis the household budget was thrown off-gear, particularly because a large proportion of workers in the region are in the informal sector. Preliminary estimates indicate that job losses for this category of workers ranged from 25 % to 56%.

    Even in the formal sector, there was substantial job loss as long lockdowns and social distancing norms took their toll. Consequently, large numbers of migrant workers left their places of work to return to their villages of origin. At this point, two good shock absorbers were introduced in India. First, the allocation to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Program was enhanced by Rs. 400 billion over budgeted amounts in order to boost employment opportunities in the villages. Furthermore, the Indian Prime Minister announced an allocation of Rs. 500 billion for the specific purpose of providing employment to returning migrant workers.

    Another safety net in operation in India was free allocation of food for the poor. Even under normal conditions within household allocation of food in the region sometimes discriminate against women and (particularly female) children. Against this background the government of India extended free rations of basic grains for the poor until end November 2020. It is fortuitous that the winter (rabi) crop in India was abundant and the summer (Kharif) crops is likely also to be good across the region. Thus, widespread hunger should not be an issue, at least in India.

    There is evidence to suggest that in Bangladesh and Pakistan women are less likely to receive information about COVID-19 than men. This is particularly worrying because traditionally women have had primary responsibility for household hygiene and care for family members. In addition, women in Bangladesh and Pakistan are less likely to be covered by health insurance.

    This problem is likely to be less acute in India because of the PM-JAY health insurance scheme. Although women have a genetic advantage in immunity from COVID their emotional health may be adversely affected as compared to men for the above reasons.

    It has been observed, however, that with the lockdown men and children are helping more with the housework than before. This should alleviate some pressures on women, although women continue to provide most of the services at home.

    However, over the longer term there are some deep concerns. First, if the pandemic induced economic crisis becomes long drawn out there might be a substantial rise in poverty, particularly chronic poverty. The efforts of many decades of poverty reduction through economic growth and supportive measures may be wiped off. Government budgets are already under considerable stress because of various fiscal stimuli in the countries. The possibilities of enhanced economic aid are also remote since most developed countries are running huge budget deficits. If the increased poverty spells get protracted there will be serious consequences for households, particularly women and children in these households.

    Also, the education of children in South Asia is facing considerable challenge in the COVID era. Sources note that even before the COVID crisis more than 95 million children were out of school in South Asia and it is likely that some more of the total of 430 million children in South Asia may face difficulties in continuing their education.

    Although the well known digital divide between rural and urban sectors has been bridged somewhat with rural India having more internet users than urban India speed and reliability of internet connections are still a concern. Whether existing internet platforms can provide enough opportunities for on line education of all children and adults is still an open question at best and more likely a serious challenge.

    To conclude, while the short-term impacts of the corona crisis are still playing out, there is apprehension that a long drawn out crisis may exacerbate poverty, health and education challenges in South Asia. History suggests that women and children will be particularly vulnerable in such situations.

    The writer is a Professor of Economics, and Executive Director Australian National University.

    (IPS)

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