Under threat: essential services finally in the spotlight
For the first time since the Second World War, people in OECD countries have started to question whether the shops will run out of food, or the power grid will hold. Everything that societies in industrialized countries took for granted has been brought into question, revealing the best of humanity (community support networks) and the worst (panic-stricken hoarding). People' horizons have drastically shrunk to getting through the next hour or day (or for parents trying to work from home with small children, the next minute).
The paradox is that this moment of global quiet and isolation has brought us closer to our fellow citizens. This applies to increased appreciation for vital workers, from doctors to supermarket workers, as well as greater awareness of how precarious livelihoods are in the gig economy.
Taking it a bit further, I hope that this appreciation extends to the millions in the developing world for whom uncertainty over a lack of formal employment, shortages of food, unreliable electricity and health systems is a way of life. And unlike in the West, this will still be true post-pandemic, because the inability to access services considered vital for basic needs is caused not by pandemics, but by profound, structural issues. Moreover, these issues cannot be resolved by massive government intervention, with many developing countries struggling to gather or deploy taxes effectively.
Consequently, even pre-pandemic, many populations in emerging markets were living in a context where economies and quality of life are routinely undermined by essential services that are absent or unreliable. 1.7 billion people did not have access to finance, 860 million people did not have access to electricity at all, millions more could not claim rights to land owned for generations, afford to put their children in school or access employment outside of the informal sector.
In addition, the lack of such access can also hamper the ability of households to withstand crises. Without access to reliable electricity, companies struggle to fulfil orders and plan ahead. Without access to formal employment, workers lack protections against an economic downturn in countries that normally lack any kind of welfare state. Without access to a bank account, households struggle to put aside savings to prepare for health problems or natural disasters.
The Covid19 crisis is certainly a catastrophe, on a human and economic level, whose speed and severity will upend assumptions and change societies for good. And since the start of the pandemic some commentators have focused on the hope that it will force a change in our views of economic policy, inequality or other existential crises (e.g. climate change). We don’t know how long quarantine will last (presumably some weeks yet), nor how long the effects will be felt. But after this moment of crisis, as we remember what is was to lack things that we normally took for granted, let us hope that all of us will refuse to tolerate poverty of any type, anywhere.
Paul Hailey is Head of Impact at responsAbility Investments and the author of various publications and articles. Previous roles at the company include Senior Research Analyst for the financial sector. He has an MBA from École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris (HEC Paris), where he is also a lecturer, and a B.A. (Hons) from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge.