This COVID-19 crisis and the resulting ambiguities have forced individuals, societies and governments to contemplate on our value systems and our economic and social order. In this critical inflection point in the global thought process, incentives and opportunities for transformation are ripe. And in many ways, this affords Nepal a portal to re-assess and re-imagine our development paradigm and launch the country on a trajectory to resilience.
In the short-term however, the most immediate policy challenge remains the perceived tradeoff between lives and livelihoods. As the world heads into a deep recession, LDCs like Nepal stand most vulnerable to the dilemma of whether to reopen the economy and risk mass infection or to be risk averse and disrupt the economy. A recent study by Bristol University indicated that "If the lockdown leads to a fall in GDP of more than 6.4 percent, more years of life will be lost due to recession than will be gained through beating the virus."
While we navigate these paradoxical challenges, it is equally imperative for Nepal, with its aspirations for equality and prosperity, to premeditate a post-COVID economy and to lay the foundations for sustainable resilience in early-recovery efforts. In addressing the policy paradox and in imagining post COVID resilience for Nepal, some observations emerge.
To think of resilience is to think of the most vulnerable.
Although Nepal has made significant strides to combat poverty, this crisis has been a rude awakening by revealing the true scale of our persistent vulnerabilities. While Nepal stands at less than 100 COVID-19 infections, the victims from the secondary impacts (socio-economic impacts) are unfortunately far more. The clustering of disadvantage has never been more clear. The World Bank reports at least 700,000 migrant workers are back from India after losing their employment, 5 to 7 million urban poor who are landless squatters have lost their daily livelihoods and women are facing more incidences of gender-based violence under lockdown.
Unquestionably, the pluralism of vulnerability is far more widespread than these numbers, but two groups, by virtue of their size, appear to be the worst affected today.
I. Informality and vulnerability are synonymous
To a large extent, to think of resilience for Nepal is to address Nepal’s informal economy, as according to ILO, more than 70% of the economically active population in Nepal is involved in the informal economy and do not receive social protection. Informality permeates across many groups such as daily-wage dependent workers like small vendors, construction workers, porters, subsistence farmers, domestic workers etc. Under these realities, informal workers should at least be provided some form of social protection or must be brought into the formal economy with special provisions that address their vulnerability. This perhaps is the first step to achieving resilience for 70% of our workforce.
II. Re-thinking gender-neutral policy on pandemics
A personal reflection, albeit based on adequate sample size, is that the great lockdown has retreated women in their role as de-facto caregivers. This indicates that while women have been negotiating their positions at work, they are still behind in negotiating their rights and responsibilities within their personal and family lives.
A recent Washington Post article had pointed out that Isaac Newton worked from home during the Great Plague of London and he used the time wisely to develop theories which eventually earned him a senior position at Cambridge. What the article failed to indicate was that he didn’t have family and childcare duties. Evidence has shown that pandemics affect men and women differently and the lockdown has had disproportionate increase in the burden of care for women coupled with of incidences of gender-based violence, cumulatively indicating the imperative for a gendered approach in addressing this crisis.
The imperative of a humanitarian centric development policy
In light of the tradeoffs (between lives and livelihoods) posed by this crisis, now more than ever, policy responses warrant synchronized coordination between humanitarian principles and development programing. To this end we need a re-evaluation of our value judgements (What do we value?), our governance system (How do we arrive at a single definition of value?), our development ideals (Utilitarian? Egalitarian?), beneficiaries and the metrics we use to measure our efforts.
However, most arguably, a humanitarian centric development policy calls for the collective imaginings of not just economists and policy makers, but also behavioral scientists, psychologists, change managers and a host of other multi-disciplinary perspectives. Only through a process of dialogue, contestation and debate among these different perspectives, can we produce a holistic and contemporary view of “value” and “price” beyond our traditional concepts of “economic value”.
To this end, metrics that capture the quality of human life, such as the Human Development Index which measures life expectancies and the Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index which captures living standards, can assist in re-imagining our conceptualization of social and economic value.