Virus-Related Unemployment Could Top 2008 Meltdown, UN Says

(CN) – At its worst projections, the toll of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 on global unemployment could eclipse the 2008 financial crisis, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimated in a preliminary report Wednesday.

The U.N. agency’s sunniest scenario estimates an additional 5.3 million people without jobs globally, and its most dire envisions 24.7 million unemployed.

A woman wears a mask and gloves while carrying toilet paper across the street in San Francisco on Tuesday. Officials in seven San Francisco Bay Area counties have issued a shelter-in-place mandate affecting about 7 million people, including the city of San Francisco itself. The order says residents must stay inside and venture out only for necessities for three weeks starting Tuesday. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

“Though these estimates remain highly uncertain, all figures indicate a substantial rise in global unemployment,” its 15-page report states. “For comparison, the global financial crisis of 2008-09 increased unemployment by 22 million.”

Released Wednesday, the report already shows its age in a rapidly growing pandemic. The authors estimated the coronavirus infected nearly 170,000 and killed more than 6,500 people. Those figures have since risen to more than 214,000 infections and more than 8,700 deaths by press time, according to frequently updated statistics by Johns Hopkins University.

“Some estimates suggest that 40-70% of the world’s population could become infected,” the report notes, citing research by Swiss economists Richard Baldwin and Beatrice Weder di Mauro.

Travel bans, border closures and quarantine measures have restricted workers’ movement, particularly migrant workers.

“The crisis has already transformed into an economic and labor market shock, impacting not only supply (production of goods and services) but also demand (consumption and investment),” the report states. “Disruptions to production, initially in Asia, have now spread to supply chains across the world. All businesses, regardless of size, are facing serious challenges, especially those in the aviation, tourism and hospitality industries, with a real threat of significant declines in revenue, insolvencies and job losses in specific sectors.”

In the United States, the Treasury Department announced plans to begin issuing stimulus checks to Americans as part of a $1 trillion economic-stabilization package, and the Senate continues to negotiate on comprehensive relief measures. Trump said Wednesday that all home foreclosures and evictions in the U.S. would be suspended through April.

Europe has envisioned huge economic stimulus packages throughout the continent, mostly to aid businesses and workers.

The International Labor Organization encouraged national and international responses, particularly for health workers on the front lines and their families.

“Swift and coordinated policy responses are needed at national and global level, with strong multilateral leadership, to limit the direct health effects of COVID-19 on workers and their families, while mitigating the indirect economic fallout across the global economy,” the agency wrote. “Protecting workers and their families from the risk of infection needs to be a top priority.”

Beyond the threat of unemployment is underemployment.

“As witnessed in previous crises, the shock to labor demand is likely to translate into significant downward adjustments to wages and working hours,” the report states. “While self-employment does not typically react to economic downturns, it acts as a ‘default’ option for survival or maintaining income-often in the informal economy. For this reason, informal employment tends to increase during crises.”

Though older people have been described as the most at risk for COVID-19, the United Nations notes young people are economically vulnerable.

“Young persons, already facing higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, are more vulnerable to falling labor demand, as witnessed during the global financial crisis,” the report states.

The United Nations notes that women are more overrepresented in occupations in the front lines, such as nurses.

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