Coronavirus: Lives vs livelihoods

Stringent lockdowns to slow the spread of coronavirus has snatched livelihoods of millions, and in many cases have even left them hungry

As billions are forced to stay indoors to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, joblessness all over the world has spiked to levels never seen before in just a span of a few weeks.

Those in the informal sector, living paycheck to paycheck, have been impacted the most. A large proportion of them now without jobs are unable to pay their rents, foot bills and even buy food.

The remaining privileged lot, still with a steady source of income and in a position to contribute to the economy, are unable to do much either with factories, shops, malls, salons, gyms and various other commercial establishments closed.

The ripple effect is proving to be devastating.

And this has left us with the toughest choice ever, between lives and livelihoods.

Desperation has already driven many to restart their businesses in the US – throughout last week and this one, we have seen protestors gather in many of its states, ignoring all norms of social distancing, to demand reopening of the economy. Almost 31 among 50 states are in the process of opening up in the face of 30 million jobless claims in the nation in past three weeks.

Frustrations are boiling over elsewhere in the world too, especially among small business owners and gig workers, who have little financial cushion.

The airline industry having come to a sudden complete halt is already being forced to handout pink slips to its staff

If the lockdown continues indefinitely, large conglomerates, which have fared somewhat better so far, would take a severe hit as well.

Hiring freezes and salary cuts have already been declared by many.

The aviation industry, the worst affected so far with both essential and non-essential travel coming to a sudden grinding halt leading to fast dwindling passenger revenues, is already considering extreme measures such as job cuts.

With the mid-term outlook remaining bleak, Europe's top airlines, for example, have announced slashing of thousands of jobs to reduce costs. Big names such as British Airways, Ryanair, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines and Air France could together lay off as many as 32, 000 employees.

Across the Atlantic, the prevailing weak sentiment has resulted in legendary American investor Warren Buffet selling off his firm’s entire holdings in the four major US airlines.

Tepid demand and supply disruptions because of factories shut down, have come to haunt other industries as well, ranging from tourism and hospitality to automobile and electronic gadgets. The farming sector has not been spared either despite a spike in demand for groceries because of the restriction on transportation facilities.

The world is already hurtling towards an economic catastrophe and the ILO estimates that the pandemic can cause a staggering 1.6 billion people to be unemployed.

The effect could be far worse in developing nations having a large population size because of patchy social security measures that are mostly unable to reach those in dire need of it. Such nations could see more hunger-related deaths than ones caused by coronavirus, fear many.

To soften the blow from the pandemic, countries such as Sweden and Hong Kong – one sparsely populated and the other densely populated – have refrained from imposing a stringent lockdown in the first place. Instead they have relied on proper practicing of social distancing, intense surveillance, contact tracing and quarantine measures to tide over the challenge.

Taking a cue from these nations, most European countries, now past the peak of coronavirus, are planning on reopening. Other nations in southeast Asia alongside India, Australia, New Zealand and the original epicentre China are also lifting the lockdown in a graded manner with the hope that it would stem the free fall of their economies.

All these, even as the novel pathogen continues to spread and kill people in the absence of a proper cure or vaccine.

Time we learnt to live with it as it’s increasingly becoming clear that a much-needed respite would not come easy. Our lives would be at risk, no doubt, but do we really have a choice anymore?