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The far-reaching fallout of COVID-19: How a once-in-a-century crisis is re-shaping the world

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The pandemic has added a deadly layer of complexity to those pressing challenges. It’s a once-in-a century crisis, with consequences that will leave deep scars for years to come.

With up to 100 million more people being pushed into extreme poverty in 2020, 1.4 billion children affected by school closures, and record unemployment, COVID-19 is a huge impediment to human progress. UNDP has predicted that global human development is on course to decline this year for the first since the concept was introduced.

UNDP’s Photoville exhibit, in New York City shines a spotlight on the pandemic’s effects as it sweeps over the rich and the poor—from the deserted streets of the mighty economic engine of New York City, to the so-called “Sewage Slum” of Nairobi, where some of the world’s most vulnerable people face even more hardship.

The full exhibition will display at the Photoville Exhibit at Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York City, 15 September through 29 November 2020.

Nichole Sobecki/VII for National Geographic

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown back the curtain on those who live on the edge in Nairobi, Kenya’s more than 100 informal settlements.

These neighbourhoods flow between the manicured suburbs of Nairobi’s wealthiest residents, yet their realities are worlds apart. Those who can afford to have quarantined behind compound gates, stocking up on supplies, and shifting their work online. Yet the vast majority of those who call Nairobi home rely on daily work. Social distancing is impossible in densely crowded areas such as Kibera, Mathare, and Huruma. Masks and hand sanitizer remain a luxury for many, as does running water.

At the height of the pandemic in May, Kariobangi's so called “Sewage Slum” was bulldozed, destroying countless homes and forcibly evicting some 7,000 people.

We may never know the true cost of the pandemic here, from increased violence to halted educations, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and growing hunger. The only meaningful social safety net has been the generosity of neighbours, who’ve come up with creative ways to buttress their communities against the sweeping tide of loss.

Nyimas Laula

Known as Indonesia's “Island of Gods”, Bali is home to four million people. It has spectacular beaches, rice paddies, and ancient temples. More than 50 percent of Bali’s economy relies directly on tourism. Last year the island attracted more than six million international, and ten million Indonesian tourists.

From the terrorist bombings that killed 202 people in 2002 to the volcanic eruption of Mount Agung in 2017, Bali has survived devastating economic shocks before. But the COVID-19 pandemic is the worst yet.

Tourism workers are relying on community food aid to survive. For some, it’s an opportunity to return to Bali’s core philosophy of “Tri Hita Karana”, (Three Causes of Well-Being), one of which is living in harmony with nature.

Thousands of workers are returning to their villages, and have once again begun living a traditional life, farming and fishing, to feed their families.

Dhiraj Singh for UNDP India

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us, in the starkest way possible, of the price we pay for the weaknesses in our social safety nets. It has exposed how harmful non-inclusive and unsustainable growth is.

More than 80 percent of Indians—around 450 million—work in the informal sector. These workers are a vital part of the economy; they contribute to nearly 50 percent of the India’s GDP and they were hit the hardest by the pandemic and the long periods of lockdown.

The International Labour Organization has predicted that nearly 400 million workers in India will be pushed back into poverty because of the pandemic.

Millions lost their jobs. With no other support, they began going back to their homes in rural areas, where they faced acute starvation, suicides, exhaustion, road and rail accidents, police brutality and lack of medical care.

Cynthia Matonhodze

For many years, Zimbabwe has been gripped by an economic crisis and hyperinflation. This has been exacerbated by severe drought which has left the majority of people at risk of starvation. According to the World Food Programme, Zimbabwe is facing its worst hunger crisis in a decade. Half its population—7.7 million people—don’t have enough to eat.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made things much worse. Earning a living has become even more difficult. Lockdown measures limit movement to only essential workers, and they are forced into an even more precarious reality.

They must wake up in the dead of the night to start the long process of getting to work on public transport. Their daily journeys are fraught with the danger of being robbed or assaulted, coupled with the ever-present risk of contracting the virus.

Dina Litovsky

By late March, 2020, New York City had become the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. When a massive lockdown went into effect, the “city that never sleeps” began a three-month hibernation. Quarantining in Manhattan, Dina Litovsky started walking the empty streets after sunset, documenting how the psychic landscape of the metropolis was affected by the crisis.

By losing its social purpose, the once-familiar landscape of the city’s busy bars, restaurants, parks, stores and intersections, became unrecognizable. Dina focused on capturing this disorienting state, where familiar things were deprived of their functions. Traffic lights directed no one, surveillance cameras filmed nothing. The streets transformed into a Hopper-esque space, punctuated by lit windows and glowing streetlights.

Fluxus Foto Collective

Education through WhatsApp aims to highlight the increasing social and economic inequalities in elementary schooling in Ecuador during the COVID-19 emergency.

Some 4.6 million children have been affected by school closures and the Department of Education has switched to virtual learning. WhatsApp allows children and teachers to communicate freely, send videos, voice, and text messages, and can be used on any phone.

According to UNICEF, only 37 percent of Ecuadorean families have internet access. This means that six out of 10 children cannot continue their studies. The situation is even worse for children in rural areas where only 16 percent of households have any technological devices.

Closing schools has had knock-on effects. Many children depend on school meals for nutrition. There’s an increased burden on women who undertake most of the housework and childcare, and the country is recording an increase in domestic violence.

Nadège Mazars

The quarantine had an immediate effect on the Colombian capital Bogotá, which depends heavily on the informal economy. On the first day, March 20, the city had taken on the veil of dystopia. The only living beings in the streets were policemen, the homeless, and pigeons hunting for food. Bogotá revealed another side of itself; the mirage built on the excesses of a consumer society fell away.

Serious consequences are predicted in the coming months. Thousands of people will lose their homes because they can’t pay their rent. Unless something is done, the social and economic consequences will continue to spiral out of control.

Nadège’s work raises awareness of the long-term effects of this crisis, and encourages us to re-think our relationship with work, the environment, and our damaging levels of over-production and consumption.

Footnotes: The exhibition also includes the work of award winning photographer Ziyah Gafic, whose story is supported by the National Geographic Society and Pulitzer Center. Nyimas Laula’s story was originally published in The New York Times on 21 July 2020. The Flux Foto collective story was made possible by the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists.