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The Pandemics We Don't See

By Atul Tandon

This article was originally published on the Opportunity International blog on December 21, 2020.

When The World Food Programme won the Nobel Prize last year, WFP president David Beasley took the increased press and attention to issue a warning: “We are going to have famines of biblical proportions in 2021.”

His message is simple but devastating: For those living in extreme poverty, things are going to get worse. The year ahead will be more difficult than the one we have just weathered, and, in Beasley’s words, “our hardest work is yet to come.”

Here in the United States, we know the severity of the health risks associated with COVID-19. We know the economic implications for ourselves, our friends, and our neighbors. We know people who have lost jobs; people who feel isolated; people whose mental health is at an all-time low.

But for impoverished communities around the world, COVID-19 triggered a wave of catastrophes we can barely comprehend:

  • The number of those on the brink of starvation has doubled to 265 million people.
  • At the end of July, the UN noted that “virus-linked hunger is leading to the deaths of 10,000 more children a month over the first year of the pandemic.” And The Lancet medical journal added to this urgency, releasing a report that noted, “An additional 6.7 million children under the age of five could suffer from ‘wasting’—a form of acute malnutrition causing weakness, thinness, and an increased risk of death.”
  • With schools closed, nearly one billion children were “locked out” in August 2020. Now, even with partial and sporadic reopenings, some 24 million students are at risk of never returning.
  • Two-thirds of the millions of micro businesses, including family farms, have been impacted by COVID-19, and over 20% are at risk of permanent closure. 
  • And globally, COVID-19 could push over 100 million people into extreme poverty, increasing the global poverty rate for the first time in decades. Almost half of the projected new poor will be in South Asia, and more than a third in sub-Saharan Africa.

So what do we do in the face of these “mutually exacerbating catastrophes” of hunger, job loss, reduced income, stalled educations, social breakdowns, rising political and ethnic conflicts, and above all, increasing extreme poverty?

Our first call to action is simple: pay attention. In the face of an unprecedented global crisis, it can be all too easy for our view to become myopic. But we cannot ignore the worsening struggles of our neighbors.

Our second is to love. ‘Loving your neighbor’ is not simply a command or a celebrated act of generosity; it affirms our own humanity back to us. Our posture of love reminds us that we are a global community. The welfare of our brothers and sisters around the world is intrinsically tied to our own. 

Our third and final call is to act—swiftly, consistently, and tirelessly. We must remain on the frontlines, helping families survive today so that they can thrive tomorrow. 

When Opportunity’s clients faced the compounding catastrophes of the pandemic, we got to work immediately. We put loan moratoria in place, kept bank branches open, and deployed staff so that clients had access to funds and trusted advisors. We increased digital access so clients could access their savings accounts with their phones. We helped smallholder famers get their crops to market when movement restrictions prevent them from going themselves. We walked alongside educators while their schools were closed, provided training so that they were ready to reopen, and are now partnering with them as they begin to welcome students again.

In this impossible year, we stood with people like Abena, a grain seller in Ghana. When the pandemic struck, she was unable to travel to purchase goods. Her income declined by 50% and she had to lay off two part-time workers. Thankfully, she received a loan payment deferral that helped her keep her business alive. Now, Abena is working to rebuild and recover—providing for her family and hoping to thrive again in the future.

In 2020, we served as a lifeline for Abena and her sisters around the world. We became first responders to help them tackle multiple compounding crises. Now, as we begin 2021, a year that could be even more severe than the one we just experienced, we must be prepared to stay in this critical role. The work is not over. In fact, it’s getting harder. But our mission, our call, and our commitment to love our neighbors remain. Will you join us? 

Atul Tandon is the CEO of Opportunity International. 

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