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Could Pandemic Lead to Famine?

While the case for a sensible degree of social distancing to combat COVID-19 in developing countries is strong, the case for a lockdown is not. Lockdowns pose new threats, and could even turn the pandemic response into a famine in some poor places.

WASHINGTON, DC – The huge health and economic shock that the new coronavirus is delivering to rich countries is also starting to reach deeply into the developing world. But we should not presume that the rich world’s policy responses to the pandemic are best for developing countries, or even feasible. On the contrary, we should anticipate sharper trade-offs and harder constraints in poorer places.

True, staying at home will most likely help to slow the spread of the virus in developing countries, just as it is doing in the rich world. But social distancing can carry a high cost, especially for poor people, who have little savings and low food stocks, and depend heavily on (often daily) casual labor. Few can survive by working from home.

This is not solely the familiar, cruel, trade-off between economic welfare and personal health that many poor people face. It is also a trade-off between two aspects of health: illness due to the virus, and hunger and poor nutrition resulting from economic isolation and disruption to markets and institutions, including private social protection.

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