Poverty and pandemic in Pacific

Focus
Covid-19 has had a far greater economic impact than health impact on Papua New Guinea and the Pacific. There has been extensive commentary about the likely macroeconomic effects of lockdowns and travel bans, but less attention given to how damaging the current crisis has been on people’s living standards, CHRIS HOY writes

IN this blog, I help to fill this gap by drawing on analysis that Andy Sumner, Eduardo Ortiz-Juariz and I have done on the potential, short-term country-level impacts of the Covid-19 on poverty around the world.
Our results suggest that the number of people living in extreme poverty in the region could increase by over 40 per cent in the short term.
We consider three scenarios – a 5 per cent, 10 per cent and 20 per cent fall in household consumption – to understand how large the potential short-term economic contraction caused by the Covid-19 might be, and look at what this means in terms of the number of people living in extreme poverty (that is, living below AU$1.90 (K4.55) 2011 purchasing power parity (PPP) a day).
Our three scenarios correspond with a range of forecasts produced by international organisations (including the IMF, ADB and OECD).
However, at this stage no one knows for sure how large the negative economic impact of the Covid-19 will be as it depends on when restrictions are lifted and how long it takes for economic activity to resume as normal.

Women collecting firewood in Obura-Wonenara, Yelia local level government, Eastern Highlands. Research suggests that Obura-Wonenara has consistently been amongst the most disadvantaged districts in Papua New Guinea and face high risks of food security. – CAREpic

To estimate the effect of these contraction scenarios on poverty, we draw on the World Bank’s online database of poverty statistics.
In our paper we explain our methodology in detail.
(It is similar to the approach used by researchers at the World Bank who produce global estimates of the potential short-term increase in poverty from the Covid-19.)
I focus my discussion of the potential short-term increase in poverty from the pandemic on the four countries with the highest number of people living below AU$1.90 (2011 PPP) a day in the region – PNG, Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Prior to the coronavirus, around a quarter of the population in PNG, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands, and 14 per cent of the population in Vanuatu, lived in extreme poverty.
These rates of extreme poverty are already higher than any other country in Asia and are around half of the average for Sub-Saharan Africa.
The scenarios we present in the figure below suggest that the number of people living in extreme poverty in these four countries may increase rapidly due to the economic impact of the Covid-19.
Even in our most conservative scenario of a 5 per cent contraction in household consumption, the rate of extreme poverty may increase to over 30 per cent of the population in PNG and Timor-Leste, 27 per cent in the Solomon Islands and 17 per cent in Vanuatu.
Our severe scenario of a 20 per cent contraction would result in an additional 1.2 million people in the region being pushed into extreme poverty, an increase of over 40 per cent on pre-Covid-19 levels.
The impact will be especially sizeable in PNG where hundreds of thousands of people would be pushed into extreme poverty and in Timor-Leste where a large share of the population were living just above the AU$1.90 (2011 PPP) line prior to the outset of the Covid-19.
These estimates point to the fact that there are large shares of the population who live just above the extreme poverty line in the region and that they are vulnerable to falling below it.
The scenarios we present are based on potential contractions in household consumption brought about by the Covid-19.
However, any shock, such as a natural disaster, could have a similar impact.
These increases in poverty are likely to occur in the absence of government or community transfers.
Policymakers have a crucial role to play in ensuring these dramatic short-term increases in poverty do not eventuate and the most straightforward way to achieve this is through the provision of direct consumption support to households.

Figure 1 – Share of population living below AU$1.90 a day

While such an approach has been adopted by governments throughout the world, including Australia, the limited existence of formal social protection systems in PNG and the Pacific make it much harder to provide transfers to poorer households quickly.
Timor-Leste is an exception as in response to the Covid-19, the government provided cash transfers to all households that live on less than AU$500 (K1,198.50) a month.
There is encouraging evidence that in the few instances where governments in the Pacific have provided emergency support directly to households in response to natural disasters that it has helped to mitigate the negative economic consequences.
A key lesson from the current crisis for policymakers in the region is that establishing social protection systems that reach the poorest households will ensure that when the next economic shock hits, large segments of the population don’t fall back into extreme poverty.

This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog, from the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National University. For more detail, and global analysis, see devpolicy.org for a detailed report on this story. This post is part of the #Covid-19 and the Pacific series.

Chris Hoy is undertaking a PhD in economics at the ANU and is currently working part-time as a Lecturer at the Crawford School, ANU, as well as a Consultant for the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

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