‘Our livelihood has been snatched away’: voices from world’s fastest-growing economies


The world’s middle-income economies have emerged as the fastest growing group of countries in the past two decades, but their workers are seriously affected by the economic crisis caused by coronavirus.

As government-mandated shutdowns have stalled business activity in recent weeks, a generation of people who grew up with high rates of growth and rapidly rising levels of education and healthcare are facing the worst financial challenge of their lifetime — with patchier and less generous welfare systems than those in richer countries.

The economic maelstrom which has driven record flows of investment out of developing economies threatens millions of people’s livelihoods — but some are finding opportunity in the upheaval.

Line chart of annual change in GDP per capita (five-year rolling average) showing middle-income countries are a key driver of global growth

Harinath Singh and Sunita Devi

Uber driver, New Delhi, India

Uber driver Harinath Singh and his wife Sunita Devi at home in New Delhi, India
Uber driver Harinath Singh and his wife Sunita Devi at home in New Delhi

A rickshaw puller transports a family in New Delhi during a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus
A rickshaw puller transports a family in New Delhi during a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus © Manish Swarup/AP

Harinath Singh was uneasy when he returned home to his working-class New Delhi neighbourhood after a long day of driving on March 21 — the eve of what was supposed to be a one-day “people’s curfew”.

Many Uber drivers had already stopped work but Mr Singh — a former autorickshaw driver who bought a car in 2016 to start driving for Uber — financially supports his wife Sunita Devi and two school-age children, and has several loans to repay. His aim was to stay on the road.

Yet that was not to be. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi imposed one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns, suspending all public transportation as well as taxi services.

These days Mr Singh, who migrated to New Delhi two decades ago from the impoverished state of Uttar Pradesh, is stuck in his rented one-room flat, playing doctor-and-patient with his eight-year-old daughter and fretting about what lies ahead.

“It’s nice that the whole family is at home, we are able to eat all meals together,” Ms Devi said. “But I and my husband worry a lot about the loss of income. Life in lockdown is so tough for people like us who depend on daily wages. Our livelihood has been snatched away.”

With no real income since lockdown began, Mr Singh — who previously spent up to 18 hours a day behind the wheel — has drawn on his savings to buy food. The family’s debts — including his Rs15,000 ($198) monthly car payment, and loans for his eldest daughter’s wedding — weigh on his mind.

Uber has distributed Rs3,000 to about 55,000 of its Indian drivers, including Mr Singh. New Delhi has also mandated that landlords not collect rent from tenants whose earnings have been hit. The Reserve Bank of India has ordered a three-month moratorium on debt repayments, such as Mr Singh’s car loan.

But these measures are scarce comfort to him; he foresees tough times for many months even if New Delhi’s lockdown is eased as planned on May 3. 

“People are very scared to travel because of coronavirus,” he said. “Even if lockdown ends, business is going to be bad.”

Alex Maia

Fishmonger, São Paulo, Brazil 

Fishmonger Alex Maia has had a surge in orders during the virus outbreak
Fishmonger Alex Maia has had a surge in orders during the virus outbreak

Pedestrians walk past stores in the Paraisopolis favela of São Paulo, Brazil
Pedestrians walk past stores in the Paraisopolis favela of São Paulo, Brazil © Rodrigo Capote/Bloomberg

Alex Maia has a problem: he has “too many orders”.

For almost 20 years the fishmonger sold his produce at public markets in São Paulo, but last month the fairs were abandoned by customers concerned about coronavirus. 

For many of the feirantes, as the vendors are known, the pandemic has been a death knell for small businesses they had run for decades. But Mr Maia began to offer home delivery to the millions of people who are self-quarantining in Latin America’s largest city, and business is booming.

“I have 70 orders per day. With so many orders, our delivery system almost collapsed,” said the 35-year-old.

“They get the fresh produce at home and can pay in different ways,” he added, alluding to the surge in new payment platforms now available in Brazil.

Column chart of year-on-year change in GDP, % showing leading middle-income economies face sharp contraction

But Mr Maia’s new business model is still vulnerable to the pandemic. The feirantes depend not only on their suppliers, but Brazil’s army of truck drivers that transport the bulk of the country’s goods.

These drivers are now openly discussing strike action to protest against the current conditions, including the closure of roadside service stations and garages. 

Brazilian government ministers have promised that the country will not face food shortages so long as the truckers keep things moving. But Mr Maia is already seeing ominous signs.

“Some products are missing,” he said. “So now I’m talking directly to the fishermen [to source food].”

Mariwan Jintawijit

Salon owner, Bangkok, Thailand

Mariwan Jintawijit’s spa has struggled as customers stay away due to the virus
Mariwan Jintawijit’s spa has struggled as customers stay away due to the virus © Nang Uraisin/FT

A woman wearing a protective mask sells fruit at a market in Bangkok
A woman wearing a protective mask sells fruit at a market in Bangkok © Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

The Shewa Spa sits amid the bars and hostels of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road area, normally the pulsating heart of tourist life in the city. 

But a six-week-old lockdown has emptied Khaosan of visitors. That has flattened the curve of new coronavirus infections, meaning authorities can begin to allow businesses to reopen, but it may be too late to save Shewa, Mariwan Jintawijit’s hair, nail and massage salon. 

“Now the disease is getting less, but the business will die,” said Ms Mariwan.

Thailand’s government this week announced a partial lifting of the lockdown from May 3, but with strict edicts on which businesses may open and what they may and may not do. Hair salons may cut and blow dry hair, for example, but colouring is banned and they must close every two hours for cleaning. Manicures and massage are prohibited. Social distancing must be maintained. 

Chart showing behaviour has changed since the pandemic – change in number of visits, by destination, on April 17 2020, compared with baseline period (%)

“I have four chairs,” Ms Mariwan said, pointing to her barber shop as she calculated the distance between them and how much her hairdressers could earn. “Do we do two, three, or one [client]?” 

She is also doubtful many customers will come back, with most international flights grounded until at least mid-May.

Her predicament is typical of many people in Bangkok, which lives on foreign visitors’ footfall. 

Ms Mariwan’s 50 employees and casual workers, many of them migrants from Thailand’s poor north-east, mostly cut Europeans’ and Americans’ nails and hair or massage their feet. The most optimistic Bangkok residents hope long-haul tourists might return by high season at the end of the year, though Chinese visitors may return sooner.

Meanwhile, she has applied for Covid-19-related government wage relief for 10 of her staff, which has not yet arrived, and a government-backed loan for the business. 

In 22 years running her business, Ms Mariwan has seen political brawls on the streets outside her shop on several occasions, and catastrophic floods in 2011, but this, she said, was worse.

“When we had the yellow shirts and the redshirts [fighting], I could still stay open and have money to pay the rent; even during the floods,” she said. “Now I have zero.”

Oke Olumide Victor

Tailor, Lagos, Nigeria

Oke Olumide Victor has shifted his business from making wedding clothes to face masks
Oke Olumide Victor has shifted his business from making wedding clothes to face masks

Wedding guests attired in Mr Victor’s designs
Wedding guests attired in Mr Victor’s designs © Instagram

Nigerian weddings are flashy affairs, full of matching kaftans and traditional dresses, and until recently they formed an essential part of tailor Oke Olumide Victor’s business.

But coronavirus has wiped them all out — including his own, planned for last month — along with all his scheduled in-person consultations and fittings in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. 

Many clients have cancelled orders and he has had to charge double his usual rates to the few who have placed new ones; most of his materials are imported from China and prices skyrocketed after Beijing imposed stringent shutdowns.

For the first time since he started his business three years ago, Mr Victor did not make any money for a full three weeks. One of his six employees has quit, unhappy with the half-pay he offered; the other five, who are among the many of Lagos’s 21m residents who live hand-to-mouth, are barely scraping by. 

Mr Victor is also finding it tough.

“My ultimate fear is that when the lockdown is over it would take a while for business to start because people would want to offset their debts and also recover the money they must have taken from other areas to survive this period,” he said.

But then he got a glimmer of good news: an old client reached out and asked him to make 100 customised face masks. The client, a retailer, wants fashionable masks that people can wear to match their outfits — the kind that Mr Victor usually designs.

“At this point, food and shelter is all we need and this job would provide that,” Mr Victor said.

Fatih and Fatma Kavraal

Hotel workers, Antalya, Turkey

Chef Fatih Kavraal has struggled to find work in Antalya’s hotels as tourism dries up
Chef Fatih Kavraal has struggled to find work in Antalya’s hotels as tourism dries up

A quiet beach in the resort town of Antalya
A beach in the resort town of Antalya last year © Burak Kara/Getty

Fatih Kavraal worked just six days this year before he was sent on unpaid leave. Like many in the Turkish city of Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast, he relies on seasonal employment in the area’s thousands of big resort hotels.

In normal times, the sun loungers would now be starting to fill up with holidaymakers from Europe, bringing in billions of dollars of foreign currency revenues that are vital to the Turkish economy. But now all international flights to the country have been halted, and the hotel where Mr Kavraal was due to work for the summer as a chef is closed.

The 27-year-old is newly married, and he and his wife Fatma — who has also been put on unpaid leave from her job in hotel security — are anxious about mortgage payments and other bills that add up to about TL3,500 (roughly $500) each month.

“If I was working, I could afford that on my own,” he said. “But now, each month that I’m not working, I’ll get behind by about TL3,500. Instead of saving, you’re going into debt.”

Tourism directly accounted for 4.8 per cent of Turkey’s gross domestic product in 2018 and the industry supports a raft of other sectors, especially in a region such as Antalya, which hosted 14.7m foreign visitors last year. Mr Kavraal has searched for other work in the city but to no avail.

He is waiting to see if he will be eligible for a new payment for furloughed workers worth TL1,170 ($167) per month, equivalent to half the minimum wage.

He managed to secure a TL3,000 loan from a state-owned bank, but it was less than a third of what he was hoping for. Like many in Turkey, he is relying on family: his in-laws have given him some cash. “They don’t have much money either but they are trying to share with us,” he said.

The Kavraals are struggling to reconcile their hopes for their first year of marriage with reality. They had planned to use some of their income from the summer season to treat themselves; instead they are stuck at home, worrying about how to make ends meet. “Our morale is not good,” he said.

Reporting by Jyotsna Singh, Amy Kazmin, Bryan Harris, John Reed, Neil Munshi and Laura Pitel



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