Coronavirus Worsens Inequality, Hitting Hard the Poor, Informal Workers in South Asia
Amid the mounting human toll and global economic fallout triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh and other South Asian governments must ramp up action to curb the health emergency, protect their people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, and set the stage now for fast economic recovery, says the World Bank in its twice-a-year-regional update.
Released today, the latest South Asia Economic Focus anticipates a sharp economic slump in each of the region’s eight countries, caused by halting economic activity, collapsing trade, and greater stress in the financial and banking sectors.
In this fast-changing and uncertain context, the report presents a range forecast, estimating that regional growth will fall between 1.8 and 2.8 percent in 2020, down from 6.3 percent projected six months ago. That would be the region’s worst performance in the last 40 years, with temporary contractions in all South Asian countries. In the case of prolonged and broad national lockdowns, the report warns of a worst-case scenario in which the entire region would experience a negative growth rate this year.
This deteriorated forecast will linger in 2021, with growth projected to hover between 3.1 and 4.0 percent, down from the previous 6.7 percent estimate.
“The priority for all South Asian governments is to contain the virus spread and protect their people, especially the poorest who face considerably worse health and economic outcomes,” said Hartwig Schafer, World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region. “The COVID-19 crisis is also an urgent call-to-action moment to pursue innovative policies and jumpstart South Asian economies once the crisis is over. Failure to do so can lead to long-term growth disruptions and reverse hard-won progress in reducing poverty.”
Bangladesh’s economy will be significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The decline in national and global demand for manufactured goods, particularly in the garment sector, risks creating unemployment and deepening poverty. The urban poor will be hardest hit while the number of additional poor will be higher in rural areas. The national shutdown will impact private consumption. While growth is expected to recover over the medium term, downside risks remain, particularly from a domestic outbreak of COVID-19 and fragilities in the financial sector.
“The extent of the impact of the pandemic will depend on the duration of the crisis and the mitigation measures are taken,” said Mercy Tembon, World Bank Country Director for Bangladesh and Bhutan. “The Bangladesh government has acted quickly with public health directives, the stimulus package, and scaled-up social protection programs. Earlier this month, the World Bank approved a $100 million financing to help detect, prevent, and respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and protect the people. We are committed to helping Bangladesh tackle the pandemic, accelerate recovery, and build resilience.”
The impact of the coronavirus will hit hard low-income people, especially informal workers in the hospitality, retail trade, and transport sectors who have limited or no access to healthcare or social safety nets. The report notes that the COVID-19 shock will likely reinforce inequality in South Asia. As played out across the region, the sudden and large-scale loss of low paid work has driven a mass exodus of migrant workers from cities to rural areas, spiking fear that many of them will fall back into poverty. While there are no signs yet of widespread food shortages, the report warns that a protracted COVID-19 crisis may threaten food security, especially for the most vulnerable.
In the short term, the report recommends preparing weak healthcare systems for greater COVID-19 impacts, as well as providing safety nets and securing access to food, medical supplies, and necessities for the most vulnerable. To minimize short-term economic pain, the report calls for establishing temporary work programs for unemployed migrant workers, enacting debt relief measures for businesses and individuals, and easing inter-regional customs clearance to speed up import and export of essential goods.
Once lockdown restrictions are loosened, South Asian governments should adopt expansionary fiscal policies combined with the monetary stimulus to keep credit flowing in their economies. Since many South Asian countries have limited fiscal space, these policies should target people worst hit by the freeze on economic activity. The report urges governments to adopt temporary spending measures and coordinate with international financial partners to avoid unsustainable long-term debt levels and fiscal deficits.
“After tackling the immediate COVID-19 threat, South Asian countries must keep their sovereign debt sustainable through fiscal prudence and debt relief initiatives,” said Hans Timmer, World Bank Chief Economist for the South Asia Region. “And looking beyond the present crisis, lie great opportunities to expand digital technologies for payment systems and distant learning to unlock remote areas in South Asia.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic circumstances within countries and regions are fluid and change on a day-by-day basis. The analysis in the report is based on the latest country-level data available as of April 7, 2020.
The World Bank Group is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response, increase disease surveillance, improve public health interventions, and help the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. It is deploying up to $160 billion in financial support over the next 15 months to help countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.
Notes: The 2020 and 2021 numbers represent the lower and upper bound of the forecast range.
For India, 2020 refers to FY19/20. e: Estimate f: Forecast
Source: World Bank