Coronavirus crisis heightens inequality and distress among vulnerable groups

The coronavirus crisis exacerbates the position of people who were already in a vulnerable situation before the outbreak of the pandemic. This shows for example in Lebanon, which has the world’s highest refugee population in proportional terms, and in South Africa, which is one the most unequal societies of the world.

Syyrialaispakolaisten leiri Libanonissa.
Lebanon refugee camp for Syrians. Photo: Ashraf Saad Allah AL-Saeed / World Bank

When the coronavirus crisis started in March, Lebanon had been in a state similar to an emergency for six months.  The revolution that started in October 2019, in which citizens called for changes in the political structures and poor economic situation, stagnated the country for several months. 

“In the months preceding the coronavirus outbreak, nearly a thousand companies and restaurants had had to close, making dozens of thousands unemployed. The fact that the remaining restaurants and small businesses had to close due to the coronavirus crisis has led to a rapidly escalating poverty in Lebanon,” says Tarja Fernández, the Finnish Ambassador to Lebanon.

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the World Bank estimated that 40 per cent of the Lebanese people live in poverty. Since then, the number has grown to approximately a half of the population.

In the middle of the worst economic crisis in the history of the country, Lebanon has run out of money to be unable to save companies.

“Demonstrations have started again.  Last autumn, people were fed up with the political elite, now the reason for unrest is that they are hungry.” 

Lebanon’s financial distress shows in Syria

Lebanon is a country of approximately the size of the region of Uusimaa with a population of about six million, of whom 1 to 1.5 million are Syrian refugees. In addition, there are a quarter of a million Palestinian refugees. Refugees live in cramped conditions mainly in cities or in plastic tents on the outskirts of villages.

“Camps set up for over 70 years ago by Palestinian refugees are packed with Palestinian and other refugees.  In such conditions, coronavirus can spread rapidly,” Fernández says.

Thanks to strict restrictive measures and extensive information campaigns, the country has so far managed to avoid the epidemic.  However, the collapse of the Lebanese economy has rapidly deteriorated refugees’ living conditions: there is not enough money for rent, food and other basic necessities.

The situation is even worse in the neighbouring Syria, which has slumped into a deep downturn following Lebanon’s economic crisis. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, 80 per cent of Syrians were poor. During the war in Syria, the country's healthcare system has been largely destroyed and the healthcare staff have either fled the country or died.

“In Idlib, for example, people have fled the war to overcrowded tent villages, where it is difficult to stop the spread of the disease.  In the war areas in Syria, it may be difficult to motivate people to protect themselves from contracting coronavirus. Fatalism spreads in circumstances where life is dominated by constant fear – if people do not die from coronavirus, they get killed by bombs or bullets.

The situation is Syria is aggravated by the fact that right at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, ISIL was found to be using the coronavirus situation in its strategy for its own benefit. There is evidence that the organisation activated its operations since February.

Tarja Fernández says that Lebanon and Syria will not manage alone in the coronavirus situation without international assistance. The impacts of the crisis have been mainly social so far. Therefore, such humanitarian organisations as UNHCR, UNICEF, UNFPA and WFP have played a central role in all countries of the region.

“Finland has allocated support to the Lebanese Red Cross, which is among front-line operators when it comes to the fight against coronavirus everywhere and in all communities.”

Two girls carry buckets in South Africa
South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank

Gap between the rich and the poor widens in South Africa

In South Africa, which is one of the most unequal societies in the world, the restrictive measures imposed because of coronavirus impact people in an unequal way.

The well-to-do population spend the lockdown in their homes, working remotely and filling their fridges as necessary, while life is completely different for those living in the slum areas and townships. Many people have not been able to earn money to buy food for the family for several weeks and there is no relief in sight for the situation. Because of the crisis, more people who are already in a disadvantaged position find themselves in an even tighter spot, and the gap between the rich and the poor widens even further.

“The closure of schools deteriorates families’ food security because, in normal conditions, nine million schoolchildren get a meal at school. For some it is the only meal they get during the day,” says Kari Alanko, the Finnish Ambassador to South Africa.

In many provinces, the state and civil society organisations distribute food packages, but many people are left without one. The most vulnerable among all are many substance abusers, people with a disability, the homeless, and HIV positive people without medication.

“Hunger and concern about the future may soon lead to unrest, civil disobedience and crime, of which occasional signs have already been seen. The inevitably deteriorating living conditions fuel dissatisfaction that gradually finds its way to various targets, building up pressure towards political leaders.  It is difficult to make the situation a success even though the measures taken were as good as any,” says Alanko.

The state hopes to get more loan

Like in Lebanon, the economic situation was poor also in the Republic of South Africa even before the coronavirus outbreak because of, among other things, widespread corruption caused by the so-called state capture and the misuse of government funds and swelling public sector wages.

South Africa’s public financial safety net is weak, which is why it is, despite its ideological constraints, approaching international financial institutions in the hope of getting COVID-19 finance.  International financial institutions are expected to grant loans at as favourable terms as possible.

To maintain social stability and cohesion, South Africa created a Solidarity Fund, which aims to support citizens and small businesses that are at the weakest position. It aims to increase social subsidies paid by the government, and the unemployment fund resources are used, among other things, to support companies in taking care of their staff's pay during lockdown.