Children in the town of Naivasha, Kenya might catch coronavirus, but like most kids their symptoms should be mild. A bigger problem for them right now is that their parents just lost their jobs. They worked in Kenya’s cut flower industry, which is currently destroying fifty tonnes of roses and other flowers every day because their customers in Europe have almost completely stopped buying. The workforce has already been cut by half, and is likely to drop further. Some families may get support from the Kenyan government’s cash transfer scheme but it’s a struggle for most African countries to support unemployed workers and many will go without.
As the crisis deepens, many more people in Africa, South Asia and around the world will be forced out of work. For half of the world’s population, who live on less than $5.50 per day, this economic crisis could be as deadly as the disease itself. Children are usually the worst hit as they are less able to withstand extreme hunger. The potential scale of this human disaster is, as yet, hard to imagine.
Preventing the spread of coronavirus is extremely difficult. Luckily, heading off the worst economic impacts could be much simpler. Richer countries are already scrambling to provide rescue packages for people put out of work. In particular, universal basic income (UBI) - a regular, unconditional cash injection for every person - is being promoted by politicians from across the political spectrum, as a way of ensuring that no one falls into poverty and society can keep ticking along.
These solutions are needed even more urgently in poorer countries, where many people already live on a knife-edge and have few savings or social welfare schemes to fall back on. To prevent an unnecessary human crisis, we need to consider how we can roll out this kind of support beyond borders.
One key proposal is the introduction of a worldwide basic income. This means providing cash, directly from a global body such as the UN, into the pockets of every person worldwide. This sounds radical, but research shows it is both technically and financially feasible. It is the kind of major intervention that will be required to prevent children dying needlessly from the coronavirus crash.
A worldwide basic income could look something like this. The UN would create a fund, using direct international taxation, for instance on carbon extraction, financial transactions or data flows. In emergency times such as these, borrowing or currency creation could also be used to quickly generate the money needed.
A fund of $1 trillion, just 1.2% of recent world GDP, would be enough to provide everyone worldwide (including children) with $10 a month - a top up that would stave off the most extreme starvation. $3 trillion would provide $30 a month, equating to $150 for a household of two adults and three kids. This would be enough to cover rent on a tiny home (in many places), and enough rice, beans or other staples to ensure no one goes without food. $100 a month per person - or around 12% of global GDP - would completely wipe out extreme poverty, ensuring that children do not starve as a result of coronavirus or any other cause that has been too long ignored.
Getting this money to people would be relatively simple, thanks to recent developments in technology. People with bank accounts could register online and get payments immediately. In countries where bank accounts are less common, many people use mobile phone-based banking, where they can receive and spend money using an old-style (non-smart) mobile phone. People without either could be issued with payment cards, to which the money would be transferred each month. In countries like Ghana and Tanzania where these technologies are popular, networks of local cashiers operate as human ATMs, allowing people to withdraw their money as cash. These technologies are already widely used by aid agencies to distribute cash to people, including in precarious situations such as refugee camps.
The benefits of small basic incomes are already well-established through pilot experiments including a $30 million initiative in Kenya and smaller projects in India, Namibia and elsewhere. Families who have been surviving on just one meal a day can start eating breakfast and dinner as well. Children who were stunted begin to shoot up in height, and perform better at school. Households have money to invest in their small farms or in businesses like bread-baking and tailoring, boosting their earned income and providing useful goods and services for their communities. During the coronavirus crisis, with global supply chains under strain, this kind of local production will become even more important to keep people fed and clothed. A worldwide basic income could give people everywhere the boost they need to stay fed, stay well and stay productive.
With borders closing and people hunkering down in their homes, it might feel like a strange time to be thinking global. Yet there has never been a greater need for an internationalist approach. The people who will suffer the most from this crisis are the same folk that the rich world relies on to supply their food and clothes, metals and mobile phones in normal times. These global supply chains are riddled with injustice, but to close them down overnight without compensation is like pushing people down a mine shaft and then disabling the lift.
While people in the UK sit back and book food deliveries with their 80% protected wages, people around the world could starve. World basic income is a workable solution that could be implemented within weeks. People everywhere must start demanding action from their governments to make it a reality.