Adverse effect of COVID-19 on workers and ways to mitigate them
Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity, some countries are struggling with the lack of resources and some countries are struggling with the lack of resolve. Exceeding on more than 200 countries and territories, infecting more than 3.7 million and killing more than 258,294 people till date, the world is grappling with a silent killer originated from Wuhan city in Eastern China, officially named as COVID-19.The world economy is enduring a staggering downturn amidst the spread of COVID-19.There has been significant rise in unemployment and underemployment in the wake of the virus affecting millions of workers for which there is a need of decisive, coordinated and immediate response in achieving a sustained and equitable recovery.
The COVID- 19 pandemic poses an extra ordinary challenge to the world. The spread of unprecedented corona and its unprecedented consequences has already had a large negative impact on labor supply and earnings of workers in many countries. Beyond the urgent concerns about the health of the workers and their families, the virus and subsequent economic shocks will impact the world of work across three key dimensions; the quantity of jobs, the quality of work and effects on specific groups who are more vulnerable to adverse labor market outcomes. Nearly 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide as a result of pandemic as per International Labor Organization. With many businesses struggling to survive, loss of jobs and income and working poverty are a reality for many workers. The impacts are already visible. Individuals are already suffering immediate losses in terms of income and employment. Labor supply is declining because of quarantine measures. At this point, the decline in economic activity will devastate workers close to or below the poverty line.
Unfortunately, the outlook for the future doesn’t paint a brighter picture. Some employers have already started laying off employees whereas others have asked them to stay on unpaid leave for some time. Labor migration has already come to a complete halt and numerous affected countries that are labor destinations for many workers have gone into lockdown, shuttering industries and factories. Workers are not able to return home which might leave them without basic facilities and their families back home without an income, affecting both physically and mentally. However, the impact is not same for all types of workers. The downturn is particularly harsh for younger workers, unprotected workers including self-employed, casual and gig workers, workers with unstable employment relationships and those in more precarious types of employment. They are likely to be disproportionately hit by the virus as they do not have access to paid sick leave and are less protected by conventional social protection mechanisms and other forms of income smoothing. These worries are even greater for workers with an underlying and invisible chronic health condition. Daily-wage earners will be hardest hit, as they have to go out every day to make ends meet.
Furthermore, the decision not to show up at work when feeling ill is particularly difficult for a person without paid sick leave and little savings to fall back on. While millions of people are laid off, some set of individuals working in agricultural, industrial, health or any sectors don’t want to slow down. With decreased working hours and increased sleepless nights, many workers are confined to their workplace with full mind thinking of family and empty stomach thrilling for food. The agricultural workers if able to produce, the consumption is decreasing due to lockdown which hits them financially. On the other hand, health workers are at the front line of the COVID -19 outbreak response and such are exposed to hazards that put them at risk of infection due to which many of them lost their life unwillingly. Hazard includes pathogen exposure, long working hours, psychological distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma and physical and psychological violence. Along with the men, the women who make up 70% of health workforce across the globe are more likely to be frontline health workers, have less access to PPE and essential safety measures. Similarly, the absence of adequate social protection systems exacerbates working family’s vulnerability to the crisis.
Since many of these workers risk their lives to protect ours, the nation has a responsibility to protect the health and financial stability of these individuals and their families. The policy responses should focus on two immediate goals: health promotion measures and economic support on both the demand and supply side. At first, the workers and employers and their families should be protected from the health risks of COVID-19. Protective measures at the workplace and across community should be introduced and strengthened, requiring large-scale public support and investment and social protection must be extended. Second, timely large scale and coordinated policy efforts should be taken to provide employment and income support and to stimulate the economy and labor demand. This measures not only cushion enterprises and workers against immediate employment and income losses but also help prevent a chain of supply shocks and demand shocks that could lead to a prolonged economic recession. Protecting workers in the workplace, stimulating the economy and labor demand and supporting employment and incomes can be the good policies to minimize the direct effects of the corona on workers.
Likewise, provision of social distancing and personal protective equipment specially for health and allied workers, volunteers and others in permanent contact with people and hygiene procedures such as thorough hand washing, using sanitizers can be appropriate to protect workers in the workplace as per the guidelines of WHO. Encouraging workers to stay home if they are sick, maintaining routine cleaning and disinfecting of work environment is essential for vulnerable workers. Prompt identification and isolation of potentially infectious individuals is a critical step in protecting workers and others in worksite. Enhancing universal access to collectively-finance health services for all including uninsured workers and their families, expanding access to paid sick leave to ensure income security for those who are sick and quarantined. It is high time that the state should come forward with relief packages for those families who depend on daily wage earning (as per Nepali saying, “Give to the one who eats when having, not to the one who always have”). The provisions of food and shelter for labors who are stuck in their labor destination should be made by the respective governments. Also, the female workers in any sectors have their unique health needs so, there must be the provision of sexual and reproductive health services including maternal health care along with essential hygiene and sanitation items focusing mainly for female health workers.
In a nutshell, the global COVID-19 pandemic is a genuine shock to daily life which has wrought havoc across the continents, leaving behind not just thousands dead, but also the global economy in tatters. Regardless of how the situation develops, action steps have to be taken immediately to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on all the affected workers. Everything we do during and after the COVID-19 crisis must aim to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies. At the end of the day, we are all human and every one of us may be impacted by COVID-19.
Srishti Neupane, BPH 5th Semester, School of Health and Allied Sciences, Pokhara University
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