Pandemic and Poverty : An analysis

The Covid-19 pandemic, which can also be regarded as once in a century crisis, has affected the health, budget, and way of thinking of the world population. It is right to conclude that this is the most impactful factor on social change in the 21st century.

This article reads the impacts of poverty with a sociological viewpoint focusing on the incidence of poverty.

Poverty has been a much-discussed topic in the sociological debate. Marx and Engles pointed out two classes: people who have nothing at their disposal but their labour, which they sell to the other class, who owns means of production and receive wages in return. While deviating from this view of economic determinism, Max Weber regarded the existence of other factors such as power and social status apart from the economic factors for the persistence of domain relations. On the contrary, the functional necessity of social inequality is propounded by Emile Durkheim. Even present day, the theoretical studies of poverty, more or less, echoes these ideas.

Poverty can be defined as the lack of material resources to satisfy one’s basic needs. Consequently, the identification of who is poor requires the knowledge of what are the basic needs. Defined as the necessary elements to fulfil fundamental needs and achieve a decent life, includes commodities such as shelter, food, clothing, drinking water, sanitation, education, and health facilities.

While assessing the impacts of the pandemic, scholars almost forget about the large part of vulnerable section of society who don’t have the means and have been impacted badly. Destitutes who had nothing to offer but their labour to get means of survival are the most affected ones. On the one hand, industries have been closed, the demand for other commodities has also gone down, which translates to lower demand for labour. Since the primary drive of capitalism is the generation of surplus and capitalism runs on the market forces of demand and supply, they are significantly less likely to think about the welfare of the distressed labour. Not only the industries but also the household employers have stopped availing the services of labourers.

On the other hand, a close study of certain enterprises reveals that the wealth concentration has only been increased. The poor-rich divide has been more broadened. While it is true that globalisation has reduced the incidence of poverty in the last decades, the pandemic has had shown a counter effect. Decades of work has been undone in a single year. Those falling in the lower-middle-class category has been pushed back into poverty.

According to T. H. Marshall, the welfare state is entrusted with the task of protecting and promoting the economic and social well-being of citizens. However, it is but evident that the health infrastructure has been crippled with the absence of know-how. Social insurance, which is a fundamental feature of the welfare state, has proved to be of no value. There are two significant reasons for this. First, very little penetration of such public schemes and the targetted group has not heard of them because of the failure of government machinery to reach them and the incidence of corruption. Second, they were crafted in such a way that they can not be availed in these exceptional times. Since the pandemic requires people to remain at their home, even the state fails to provide means of employment by way of, in words of JM Keynes, prime pumping.

What can be done about it? The first and foremost necessity is to protect the income of the most vulnerable sections of the society by bringing people back and give them jobs by taking advantage of the shifting supply chain. The government has already taken steps to incentivise the sectors which are labour intensive and can provide a high return in terms of employment. One aspect that we should not ignore at any cost is children. Many of them, especially in rural areas, had fallen off-grid of education, mainly due to the increased prevalence of ‘everything online’. It is no doubt that women participation in the workforce creates a multiplier effect in the economy. Females mainly dominate small enterprises, and this is one place where the state should provide more incentives. We should also look positively at the emergence of new sectors, new industries and new jobs created.