As a domestic worker, Amsale Hailemariam knew from the inside out the luxury villas that had grown up around her simple shelter of raw metal and plastic sheeting. In them, she saw how her country, Ethiopia, had transformed.
The single mother told herself: “Oh God, a day will come when my life will be changed, too.”
The key lay in her daughter, just months from a career in public health, who studied how to battle the illnesses of want and hunger.
Illustration: Mountain People
Then a virus mentioned in none of her textbooks arrived, and dreams faded for families and entire countries, like theirs. Decades of progress in one of modern history’s greatest achievements, the fight against extreme poverty, are in danger of slipping away because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world could see its first increase in extreme poverty in 22 years, further sharpening social inequities.
“We are living in a state where we are above the dead and below the living. This is not life,” Amsale said, near tears.
With COVID-19 and its restrictions, up to 100 million more people globally could fall into the bitter existence of living on just US$1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.
That’s “well below any reasonable conception of a life with dignity,” the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty wrote this year.
It comes on top of the 736 million people already there, half of them in just five countries: Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and Bangladesh.
India is struggling with one of the world’s largest COVID-19 caseloads and the effects of a lockdown so abrupt and punishing that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked poor people to forgive him.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has surpassed India with the most people in extreme poverty — roughly half of its citizens.
DR Congo remains one of the world’s most crisis-ridden countries, with outbreaks of Ebola and measles smoldering.
Even China, Indonesia and South Africa are expected to have more than 1 million people each fall into extreme poverty, the World Bank says.
“It’s a huge, huge setback for the entire world,” said Gayle Smith, president of the ONE Campaign to end extreme poverty and a former administrator for the US Agency for International Development.
Smith called the global response to the crisis “stunningly meager.”
Most of the millions newly at risk are in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that against countless odds had some of the world’s fastest-growing economies in past few years.
Data compiled by the World Bank, measuring the COVID-19 pandemic’s direct effects over several months, show that the pain is already widespread in Ethiopia.
Similar efforts are under way in more than 100 countries.
In 1991, when Ethiopia began its transformation, the country was exhausted by war. Then-Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi was shaking off years of Marxist dictatorship and terrifying drought whose images of withered children left the world aghast. The former rebel had a vision that became his legacy, one of bringing his country out of grinding poverty.
Amsale had newly arrived in the capital, Addis Ababa, from what is now neighboring Eritrea, her baby daughter in her arms. For her, the child, Bethlehem Jafar, became a tiny symbol of the city’s rise.
Bethlehem benefited from the welfare of the state and the charity of those who saw in her a better future. Her mother scraped by through manual labor, vowing that her girl would never do the same.
Fellow Ethiopians were moving up in the world as the government looked to emulate China’s astonishing lifting of more than 800 million people from poverty.
Some embraced new manufacturing jobs. Others left subsistence farms for the growing sectors of hospitality, service and aviation that catered to the changing times, hoping to join Africa’s expanding middle class.
The number of people in extreme poverty dropped dramatically, from nearly half of Ethiopia’s population in the mid-1990s to 23 percent two decades later.
“Impressive,” the World Bank said.
The high-altitude city of Addis Ababa, Africa’s diplomatic capital, became an aviation hub and a magnet for millions of citizens seeking better lives. Some grasped the first rung of upward mobility in the hustle of the untaxed informal sector, dodging the growing number of cars in the streets that signaled the middle class.
Under Ethiopian Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the capital in the past two years has seen a wave of new construction, including malls and luxury apartments. A source of national pride is a massive dam near completion on the Nile, funded completely by Ethiopia and its citizens in a bid to pull millions more from poverty.
Now Ethiopians of all kinds are hurting in the COVID-19 pandemic. The country, along with DR Congo, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, is expected to see half of sub-Saharan Africa’s new extreme poor.
As the huge economic toll ahead became clearer, Abiy took the global lead in appealing to rich countries to cancel the debt of poorer ones, saying that Ethiopia spends twice as much on paying off external debt as it does on health.
In trying to grasp the impact of a global slide into extreme poverty, even some experts feel at a loss.
From his home in Addis Ababa, Fitsum Dagmawi has heard his compatriots’ fear.
Working for the World Bank survey, he is calling people across the country and asking how their lives have changed since COVID-19 arrived.
“We might interview five to 10 people a day, and this pandemic is affecting everyone,” Dagwami said. “We are feeling this stress every day.”
Some people begin weeping, recounting family member’s deaths and asking bewildered questions: “What will we do now?”
Jobs are gone. Families wonder how to feed their children. The gatherings that played a stabilizing role — church services, weddings and funerals — have been limited or lost.
“I will have to struggle,” one head of a household said.
The first round of calls to 3,200 households in Ethiopia found a 61 percent drop in employment, with many job losses in sectors closely tied to the country’s growth: construction, hospitality, restaurants and big hotels.
The second round of calls saw some rebound, but employment could mean anything in a country where most work remains informal. Now some people with university degrees find themselves seeking manual labor.
“Small shocks in income can have devastating effects,” World Bank senior economist Christina Wieser said.
It shows. In Ethiopia, 55 percent of households blamed a drop in regular income for the inability to buy items like medicine or staple foods. Nearly 40 percent had lost all earnings from remittances from the large diaspora, a crucial way to stay afloat.
For many Ethiopians, there is still little cushion between getting by and destitution. Just over 20 percent of households were relying on savings and 19 percent were already eating less. A quarter had run out of food in the previous 30 days and just over 5 percent of households received support of any kind.
“I have not paid my rent for two months and I’m not sure my landlord will give me more time,” a 32-year-old father of two said. “Just imagine, out of work and living with COVID. It’s very stressful.”
He was fired in May from a Chinese-owned company in one of the industrial parks that have sprung up in the past few years as a government-backed engine of development.
“We were told business is slow due to the virus,” the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he hoped to be rehired.
So much depends on how long the pandemic lasts.
The African Development Bank once assumed that it would subside by June, country director Abdul Kamara said.
Now, he said, “decades of poverty reduction in Ethiopia could be lost.”
Before COVID-19, the bank estimated that the country’s economy would grow by more than 7 percent this year. The current worst-case scenario shows just 2.6 percent.
Ethiopia’s revenue losses are estimated at US$1.2 billion, at a time when the government needs more money to expand social safety nets, Kamara said.
About 2.5 million jobs are threatened, roughly the same number of Ethiopians who enter the workforce every year.
For a young woman like Bethlehem, the way forward seems in shambles. She was forced home from her studies as schools closed and now shelters with her mother.
Their home is just steps away from a public toilet that often overflows during the rainy season.
“Even if we protect ourselves from infection, the area we are living in makes us vulnerable. And that worries us to death,” Amsale said.
The better-off neighbors who once welcomed her into their homes to cook and clean now turn her away, fearing COVID-19.
“They told me we should avoid contact. There was no help I received from them since,” Amsale said.
She and her daughter make do with the equivalent of US$34 a month that Amsale receives from local authorities for helping with projects like beautifying public spaces and sweeping the streets.
However, she does not like to go out, fearing infection.
Bethlehem did not want to be photographed, anxious that images of her in the humble surroundings could further challenge her suddenly difficult future.
She sat in their home, going over her books and lingering over a former teacher’s scribbled message of hope: “Bethi, we love you so much & wish you success in your education.”
Her knowledge of public health makes her keenly aware how poverty compounds the risks of a deadly pandemic.
“I think Ethiopia’s peak [virus] season is yet to come and I really hope some vaccines will be available soon,” Bethlehem said. “For now, we are waiting for a miracle that can change our lives.”
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