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FOCUS June 2021 Volume 104

COVID-19 in North and Central Asia: Impacts, Responses & Strategies to Build Back*

UNESCAP, Subregional Office for North and Central Asia

Countries in the North and Central Asian subregion were relatively quick to implement strict measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19, including border closures, additional health screening and other requirements at border-crossings, as well as other containment measures. These measures often implied additional costs and delays in cross-border transport and trade, which adversely affected national and regional supply chains. The increase in costs, delays and disruptions amplified pre-existing connectivity challenges in Asia and the Pacific. Countries in the subregion also introduced lockdowns, curfews, closures of businesses and schools, and restrictions on gatherings.

Social Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities in the subregion, and it is creating new vulnerabilities as levels of poverty have increased. To understand important aspects of preparedness or resilience to the current crisis, a good starting point is the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) that combines a country’s average achievements in health, education and income.

HDI values in the subregion are higher than the world average of 0.731. However, the inequality adjusted HDI value (which discounts for the human development cost of inequality) shows a less positive picture, especially for Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

While access to basic services, such as drinking water and electricity, is on par with world averages, healthcare systems show a larger degree of stress, echoing the above-mentioned impacts of underinvestment in the health sector. The relatively low (i.e., negative) scores for vulnerable employment (defined as the total percentage of own-account workers and contributing family workers1) in the subregion are noteworthy as this represents a large part of the workforce that is most likely to be negatively affected by the crisis. The low number of broadband subscriptions shows a large gap in the ability to make use of digital services which have become such an important component of successfully coping with the impacts of the pandemic.

Vulnerable Population Groups

The COVID-19 pandemic and its wider socioeconomic impacts affect different population groups in different ways. Vulnerable population groups often live in the margins of their societies and economies and they experience poorer working and living conditions, barriers to social protection and healthcare services, weaker safety nets and stigma.2 In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, vulnerabilities show themselves in several dimensions or spheres.

First, there are vulnerabilities in the health sphere. People are exposed to infection, and other health issues have been aggravated by the shift in focus of healthcare capacities to pandemic response.

Next, there are vulnerabilities in the social sphere which result from government measures to restrict contact and mobility to stop the spread of the disease. Further vulnerabilities arise from diminished incomes of households and fiscal space of governments and civil society organizations. Additionally, there are vulnerabilities in the economic sphere. The COVID-19 pandemic has created economic and labour shocks that disproportionately affect vulnerable groups – including women and girls, older people, migrants and people with disabilities – who are more likely to work in insecure, informal employment.

One major indicator of vulnerability is age, with older people and youth having higher levels of vulnerability, though for different reasons. Older people are considered as a high-risk group for COVID-19 infections as they are much more likely to suffer a severe case of the disease, and globally, 75 per cent of COVID-19 related deaths are among those 65 years and older.3 Older people are also more vulnerable to secondary effects, such as social isolation, neglect and abuse, and limited access to services. Such vulnerabilities already existed before the pandemic but they were magnified under lockdowns or other restrictions of movement when more and more services shifted into the digital sphere.

Youth are less likely to be affected by the direct health impacts of COVID-19, but they face negative impacts on educational outcomes by school closures or in their school-to-work transition. Inequalities in accessing quality education that existed before the pandemic were intensified during lockdowns, when access to learning was available only through electronic devices and required a stable Internet signal. For older youth, the school-to-work transition may be interrupted as fewer employers are hiring. As the pandemic continues, young people are more likely to suffer from stress and anxiety as their employment prospects and financial security are less certain than those of older age groups.

Greater health risks and socioeconomic vulnerability interact with differentiated structural conditions in the subregion, such as age distribution, labour force participation and unemployment. There are some countries in the subregion with a relatively high proportion of older people (ageing societies), such as the Russian Federation or Georgia, and some with relatively young populations, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Among the older population groups, labour participation varies greatly. It is highest in Georgia, which could be an indicator of insufficient social protection, such as pension. Similarly, Kyrgyzstan has a large proportion of young people, and 20.5 per cent of youth were not in education, employment, or training even before the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an ominous indication of levels of vulnerable youth during the pandemic, especially if one takes into account youth staying at home who otherwise would have opted for international labour migration or who depend on relatives’ remittances to meet their basic needs. When juxtaposed with the health risk from COVID-19, a differentiated picture of vulnerability emerges.

Experience has also shown that women are often disproportionately affected because they are more likely to be in vulnerable employment and are typically employed in sectors particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, such as the services industry and informal sectors. Women also make up a large proportion of frontline responders, such as health professionals.

A rapid gender assessment in countries of Europe and Central Asia revealed that in Kazakhstan, during the first wave of the pandemic, salaries of women who were part of the assessment had decreased by 50 per cent. Further, among all groups of employed women, self-employed women suffered the worst economic consequences, with 25 per cent losing their jobs (compared to 21 per cent of self-employed men) and another 49 per cent having reduced working hours. More than 14 per cent of women respondents lost their jobs and 41 per cent had a reduction in paid working hours.4

Moreover, due to prevailing gender roles in the subregion, women bear the double burden of exposure to the pandemic and a heavy workload, as many caregivers at home and in communities are women. Child care, care for people with disabilities, care for older people, care for those who are sick, including from COVID-19, and increased caregiving functions due to lockdowns and a reduction in services fall disproportionally on women. The above-mentioned assessment found that on average, 70 per cent of women spent more time on at least one unpaid domestic work activity, such as cleaning, cooking, laundry and looking after children (especially during school closures), which is significantly higher than for men (59 per cent).

This has also affected their time and, therefore, the employment or livelihood activities they would otherwise take on. Furthermore, the enforced confinement of families and the increased stress levels caused by the uncertainty and concerns over income have had severe implications for women’s safety at home, with recent months seeing a surge in domestic violence across the subregion.

A particularly vulnerable group during the COVID-19 pandemic are people with disabilities. The World Health Organization estimates that 15 per cent of the world’s population have some form of disability. Barriers to the full and effective participation and inclusion of people with disabilities in society are structural and pre-date COVID-19. Moreover, many people with disabilities experience intersecting disadvantages when disabilities interact with other characteristics including gender, age, ethnicity, income or place of residence.

Many people with disabilities are poor and in vulnerable employment without adequate social protection. ESCAP research indicates that the difference in poverty rates between people with disabilities and the general population can be as high as 20.6 per cent, and people with disabilities are two to six times less likely to be employed than those without disabilities. During the pandemic, these disadvantaged circumstances make people with disabilities more vulnerable, especially those with existing health conditions.

For example, due to social distancing rules, people providing support services had to temporarily pause their work to protect themselves and people with disabilities against additional infection risks. Many other essential support services are no longer available.

Migrants have also been severely affected by COVID-19 containment measures. Internal migrants are usually drawn to capital cities or to other educational and industrial centres. Experience from former crises has shown that migrants are among the first to be dismissed when companies face economic downturns. In destination countries, many migrants are dependent on food and basic supplies donated by international organizations, charities and embassies. Consequently, families of migrants stay without income and social safety nets back home.

Besides the consequences of financial hardship (due to overreliance on remittances), migrants often work under hazardous conditions with limited or no access to health services and social protection. Living in overcrowded accommodations and travelling via crowded transportation routes increase migrants’ exposure to infection.

Furthermore, migrants are likely to face significant challenges in accessing a COVID-19 vaccine. For legal labour migrants, the expiration of their residency and working permits in some destinations is a concern. In the Russian Federation, the president signed a decree that allows migrant workers to stay and work in the country until 15 December 2020 without providing the necessary documents,5 which was a welcomed measure. Further support needs to be targeted towards migrant communities to help them retain a legal status and prevent the exacerbation of socioeconomic conditions. Other vulnerable groups that faced disadvantages, exclusion and discrimination even before the pandemic include ethnic minorities, prisoners and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. This brief does not analyse all vulnerable groups comprehensively, however, it is important to highlight a group called the “missing middle” that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the middle and upper-middle income groups are employed in the formal economy and are covered by social security, and many of society’s poorest are covered by targeted social assistance transfers, the missing middle is a newly vulnerable population group consisting of formerly non-poor informal workers, occasional or “gig” and part-time workers, long-term unemployed people, and labour migrants who have lost their source of livelihood, but do not meet criteria for State support. The missing middle is now more apparent, and people in this group are in a situation of vulnerability, living on less than $3.20 per day or at the poverty line of $5.50 per day. Government strategies must focus on adequately supporting them.

Poverty and Inequality

As already mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic increased vulnerability to job loss and loss of livelihoods. Many working-age men and women across the subregion are self-employed, work informally, or are labour migrants. As such, they are poorly covered by social protection schemes, and are particularly vulnerable to falling into poverty. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty (defined by the World Bank at $1.90 per day), had been declining steadily in the subregion over the past few decades and was relatively small before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Uzbekistan had the highest number of individuals living in extreme poverty, with Tajikistan and Georgia each at about 5 per cent.

The COVID-19 induced crisis is increasing the number of extremely poor people across the subregion. The latest World Bank estimates of one million additional people living in extreme poverty for the Europe and Central Asia region. The number of people living on less than $3.20 per day will increase by two–three million and the number of people living on less than $5.50 per day will increase by an even larger margin (six–eight million). On a positive note, the World Bank revised its estimates downward to some extent between June and September. Future developments will depend both on the severity and length of the pandemic in the subregion and on continued and well-targeted support measures of Governments. During the first few months of the pandemic, many people could rely on short-term coping mechanisms, such as depleting existent savings and taking on debt. However, these options were exhausted as the pandemic continued, of course, with negative longer-term impacts on multidimensional poverty, which goes beyond income and access to assets, such as remittances, and expresses itself through the lack of access to core social services, such as health and education, and also services such as heating or electricity.

Unequal access and unmet needs are particularly being magnified by the COVID-19 crisis. Inequalities across multiple dimensions, including income, access to basic infrastructure and services or power (and “having a voice”), were already on the rise in the subregion before COVID-19. Of particular note for North and Central Asia are gender gaps in the workplace, education and access to services, with women being at a disadvantage relative to men.

This policy brief recommends the following for subregional cooperation:

Protect people and facilitate inclusivity in social services – The pandemic highlights the vulnerabilities in social systems across the subregion. Emphasis needs to be placed on public healthcare funding, targeting vulnerable population groups and ensuring access to quality education.

* This is an excerpt of the policy brief entitled COVID-19 in North and Central Asia: Impacts, Responses & Strategies to Build Back Better issued in February 2021 by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) as part of the Framework on Socioeconomic Response to COVID-19.

For further information, please contact: Nikolay Pomoshchnikov, Head, ESCAP Subregional Office for North and Central Asia; e-mail: pomoshchnikov@un.org.


1 UNDESA and ILO, https://desa.un.org/unmigration/documents/retreat/UNpercent20WOMEN_Indicator_vulnerable_employment.pdf.
2 WHO (2020), Factsheet October 2020: Vulnerable Populations during COVID-19 Response, www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/466108/Factsheet-October-2020- vulnerable-populations-COVID-19.pdf.
3 World Health Organization, “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Global epidemiological situation,” p. 1. 4 October 2020, www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20201005-weekly-epi-update-8.pdf.
4 UN Women (2020), The impact of COVID-19 on women’s and men’s lives and livelihoods in Europe and Central Asia: Preliminary results from a Rapid Gender Assessment, https://eca. unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/07/the-impact-of-covid19-on-womens-and-mens-lives-and-livelihoods.
5 Russian Federation, Ministry of the Interior, Letter as of 15 September 2020 No. 1/10382. See http://legallabor.ru/normativno-pravovayabiblioteka/item/353-pismo-ministerstva-vnutrennikh-del-rf-1-10382.

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