The Economic Devastation Could Ultimately Kill More Than the Virus Itself

May 12, 2020

It seemed like Silvanah Lima was finally getting ahead.

Born and raised in Brazil’s drought-ridden northeast, she moved with her partner to Rio de Janeiro in 2018, in search of work. He was hired as a janitor; she began selling meals on the street, and soon they were bringing in $280 a month — enough to start saving to one day build a house back home.

The novel coronavirus pushed that dream out of reach. Lima, who has diabetes and heart problems, putting her at higher risk of dying if she contracts the virus, stopped working once the pandemic took hold in her sprawling slum, known as the City of God.

Now it seems that if the coronavirus doesn’t kill her, hunger may.

“We have to pay the rent, and we don’t have the money,” said Lima, 48. “I haven’t even been able to buy beans.”

The economic devastation the pandemic wreaks on the ultra-poor could ultimately kill more people than the virus itself.

The United Nations predicts that a global recession will reverse a three-decade trend in rising living standards and plunge as many as 420 million people into extreme poverty, defined as earning less than $2 a day.

As for the 734 million people already there, the economic tsunami will make it harder for them to ever climb out.

“I feel like we’re watching a slow-motion train wreck as it moves through the world’s most fragile countries,” said Nancy Lindborg, president of the nonprofit U.S. Institute of Peace and former head of the Ebola task force at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Hunger is already rising in the poorest parts of the world, where lockdowns and social distancing measures have erased incomes and put even basic food items out of reach.

In Guatemala, villagers are begging for food along highways by waving pieces of white cloth at passing drivers. In Colombia, the hungriest hang red flags from their homes in hope of donations.

Recent phone surveys in places as disparate as Senegal and rural China suggest that large swaths of society have lost their livelihoods and, as a result, are eating less.

The U.N. predicts the coronavirus could push an additional 130 million people to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. World Vision, an international Christian aid organization, warns that 30 million children are at risk of dying.

“I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe,” said David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program.

While the virus has already hammered many developed nations, which are now taking cautious steps to reopen their economies, it has yet to peak in many of the world’s poorest countries, meaning the economic devastation there could drag on longer.

The pandemic, which began in an industrial Chinese city but has since spread to even the remotest corners of the Amazon rainforest, has exposed the radical interdependence of the modern world — causing disruptions in everything from manufacturing to the global narcotics trade.

In Mexico, where an estimated 1.6 million households survive on money sent from relatives working in the United States, many are beginning to feel the secondary impact of the closures of restaurants, hotels and the construction industry north of the border.

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