Coronavirus crisis in Latin America made worse by poverty, inequality, U.N. agency says

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the throes of the coronavirus crisis will only see their problems made worse by festering inequality, poverty and an ailing social safety net, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said social unrest was on the rise across the region, a sign that immediate action was necessary to aid hard-hit countries struggling long before the pandemic hit.

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have spread to all areas of human life, altering the way we interact, paralyzing economies and generating profound changes in societies,” the report said.

Persistently high levels of inequality, the agency said, combined with a sprawling informal labor market that leaves workers without protection and a lack of effective health care coverage have made those problems worse.

Urban slums on the fringes of many of the region’s cities often lack access to basic services, mean many citizens found themselves unable to access food, water and healthcare necessary to confront the crisis.

Poverty meanwhile, has crept upward, while advances in reducing inequality have stagnated, exacerbating trends seen in the five years prior to the crisis.

During that period, Latin America and Caribbean economies grew an average of just 0.3% per year overall, while extreme poverty increased from 7.8% to 11.3% of the population and poverty, from 27.8% to 30.5%.

The report also said the prolonged closure of schools in the region could constitute a “generational catastrophe” that will only deepen inequality.

The pandemic has also brought a rise in mortality that could push down life expectancy in the region depending how long the crisis endures, the agency said.

There have been at least 21,699,000 reported infections and 687,000 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

​ Of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 24 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Yemenis reel from poverty, hunger as U.N. pleads for funds and war’s end

SANAA (Reuters) – Unable to find work, Ahmed Farea has sold everything including his wife’s gold to feed and house two young daughters in one small room.

Elsewhere in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, widow Mona Muhammad has work but struggles to buy anything more nutritious than rice for her four children amid high prices.

And in a nearby hospital, severely malnourished children receive lifesaving nutritional drinks.

Across the country Yemenis are exhausting their coping mechanisms, and children are starving, amid the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what the U.N. aid chief has said would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.

“I want the war to stop so we can go back to how we were … We could buy what we wanted and could feed our children,” said Muhammad.

Yemen was a poor country with a child malnutrition problem even before the six-year war disrupted imports, inflated the currency, displaced people, collapsed government services and destroyed incomes. Then COVID-19 hammered remittances from abroad that many families relied on.

‘UNIMAGINABLY CRUEL’

“Since the war and the blockade started, and work stopped, I can’t buy anything anymore. Where am I supposed to get it from?” said Farea, who wheels his barrow daily to collect water in cans from a neighborhood tank provided for poor people.

“I sleep all morning and then have lunch at noon from whatever God supplies and that covers the rest of the day.”

His work in construction declined in the wake of the political upheaval caused by Yemen’s 2011 uprising, he said. He then sold fruit but rising prices after war broke out in late 2014 made this unprofitable.

As needs have risen in the past year, funding of the aid response has dropped, leading the U.N. and other aid agencies to scale down or close various assistance programs.

Famine has never been officially declared in Yemen but pockets of famine-like conditions have appeared for the first time in two years, the U.N. has said.

In 2018 and 2019, the U.N. prevented famine due to a well-funded aid appeal. But in 2020 the world body only received just over half the $3.4 billion it needed.

“What is happening to the people of Yemen is unimaginably cruel. Aid groups are catastrophically underfunded and overstretched. The parties to this senseless war specialize in producing suffering and the weapon of choice is hunger,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, on a visit to Yemen.

There has been a recent renewed push by the U.N. and the United States for a negotiated end to the war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. New U.S. President Joe Biden has said Yemen is a priority, declaring a halt to U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign.

(Reporting by Reuters Yemen team,; Writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Biden administration to distribute more than 25 million masks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will deliver more than 25 million masks to community health centers, food pantries and soup kitchens this spring as part of its battle against the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said on Wednesday.

U.S. health authorities recommend mask wearing as a critical measure to help slow the spread of disease and the White House said low-income Americans still don’t have access to masks.

The government will deliver the masks to more than 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens between March and May, the White House said.

The masks are expected to reach between 12 million and 15 million Americans, it said.

Democratic President Joe Biden issued a mask mandate when he took office in January as the pandemic raged on, requiring masks and physical distancing in all federal buildings and the development of a testing program for federal employees for COVID-19.

Shortly afterward, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a sweeping order requiring the use of face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation.

The White House said two-thirds of the people served by community health Centers live in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are homeless.

“These masks will be no cost, high-quality, washable, and consistent with the mask guidance from the CDC. All of these masks will be made in America, and will not impact availability of masks for health care workers,” the statement said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

COVID-19 wreaks havoc on U.S. economy; 2020 performance worst in 74 years

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy contracted at its deepest pace since World War Two in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic depressed consumer spending and business investment, pushing millions of Americans out of work and into poverty.

Though a recovery is underway, momentum slowed significantly as the year wound down amid a resurgence in coronavirus infections and exhaustion of nearly $3 trillion in relief money from the government. The moderation is likely to persist at least through the first three months of 2021.

The economy’s prospects hinge on the distribution of vaccines to fight the virus. President Joe Biden has unveiled a recovery plan worth $1.9 trillion, but some lawmakers have balked at the price tag soon after the government provided nearly $900 billion in additional stimulus in late December.

“The economy will never move further away from the edge of the cliff of recession unless there is a resurgence in final demand, meaning consumers have to come out in force to make the recovery a permanent one,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Gross domestic product decreased 3.5% in 2020, the biggest drop since 1946, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. That followed 2.2% growth in 2019 and was the first annual decline in GDP since the 2007-09 Great Recession.

Nearly every sector, with the exception of government and the housing market, contracted last year. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, plunged 3.9%, the worst performance since 1932. The economy tumbled into recession last February.

Delays by the government to offer another rescue package and renewed business disruptions caused by the virus restricted GDP growth to a 4.0% annualized rate in the fourth quarter. The big step-back from a historic 33.4% growth pace in the third quarter left GDP 2.5% below its level at the end of 2019.

The economy is expected to return to its pre-pandemic level in the second quarter of this year.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday left its benchmark overnight interest rate near zero and pledged to continue pumping money into the economy through bond purchases, noting that “the pace of the recovery in economic activity and employment has moderated in recent months.”

With the virus still raging, economists are expecting growth to slow to around a 1.0% rate in the first quarter, before regaining speed by summer as the additional stimulus kicks in and more Americans get vaccinated.

“We foresee record-breaking consumer spending growth in 2021 with households benefiting from a watered-down $1.2 trillion version of Biden’s rescue plan, vaccine diffusion gradually reaching two thirds of Americans by July and employment accelerating this spring,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

K-SHAPED RECOVERY

The services sector, especially restaurants, bars and hotels, has borne the brunt of the coronavirus recession, disproportionately impacting lower-wage earners, who tend to be women and minorities. That has led to a so-called K-shaped recovery, where better-paid workers are doing well while lower-paid workers are losing out.

The stars of the recovery have been the housing market and manufacturing as those who are still employed seek larger homes away from city centers, and buy electronics for home offices and schooling. Manufacturing’s share of GDP has increased to 11.9% from 11.6% at the end of 2019.

A survey by professors at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame showed poverty increased by 2.4 percentage points to 11.8% in the second half of 2020, boosting the ranks of the poor by 8.1 million people.

Rising poverty was underscored by persistent labor market weakness. In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 847,000 for the week ended Jan. 23. While that was down 67,000 from the prior week, claims remain well above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession.

Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs 1.3 million people filed claims last week.

The economy shed jobs in December for the first time in eight months. Only 12.4 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April have been recovered. About 18.3 million Americans were receiving unemployment checks in early 2021.

“The labor market is struggling this winter, but better times are ahead,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Lack of jobs and the temporary expiration of a government weekly jobless subsidy curtailed growth in consumer spending to a 2.5% rate in the fourth quarter after a record 41% pace in the July-September quarter.

But business investment grew at a 13.8% rate, with spending on equipment rising at a 24.9% pace. Spending on nonresidential structures rebounded after four straight quarterly declines.

Businesses also accumulated inventories last quarter, contributing to GDP growth. But the inventory build pulled in more imports, leading to a larger trade deficit, which subtracted from output. The housing market recorded another quarter of double-digit growth, thanks to historically low mortgage rates. Government spending was weak.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Lebanon tightens lockdown, imposes 24-hour curfew, as hospitals buckle

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon announced a tightening of its lockdown on Monday, introducing a 24-hour curfew from Thursday as COVID-19 infections overwhelm its medical system.

The new all-day curfew starts at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Thursday and ends at 5 a.m. on Jan. 25, a statement by the Supreme Defense Council said.

Lebanon last week ordered a three-week lockdown until Feb. 2 that included a nighttime curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.  But tighter measures were now necessary as hospitals run out of capacity to treat critically ill patients, President Michel Aoun said in the statement. “We have seen dreadful scenes of citizens waiting in front of hospitals for a chair or a bed,” he said.

The new measures also include stricter procedures at the airport for passengers arriving from Cairo, Addis Ababa, Baghdad, Istanbul and Adana. Travelers arriving from these destinations will have to quarantine for seven days at a hotel while all others will quarantine up to 72 hours. Overall air traffic at the airport will also be cut to 20% from normal operating levels and supermarkets will be limited to delivery services.

Anticipation of stricter measures on Monday had driven many Lebanese to wait in long queues in front of supermarkets and empty shelves.

Lebanon registered 3,743 new infections on Sunday, bringing its total to 219,296 cases and 1,606 deaths since Feb. 21.

Adherence to social distancing and other preventive measures has been lax prompting government fears of a significant rise in cases after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Daily infections reached an all time high of 5,440 on Friday.

“Sadly we are being faced with a frightening health situation,” Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said. “The corona pandemic is out of control because of the stubbornness of people and their rebellion against measures we take to protect them from its dangers.”

The lockdown faces resistance amid concerns over soaring unemployment, inflation and poverty.

Lebanon is still dealing with a devastating financial crisis that has crashed the currency, paralyzed banks, and frozen savers out of their deposits.

Medical supplies have dwindled as dollars have grown scarce.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Laila Bassam; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Americans give to charity like never before amid pandemic

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Hundreds of cars line up before dawn on weekly distribution days for the Forgotten Harvest’s partner food pantries in the metro Detroit area, where visits are up by 50% this year.

The need has grown as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down offices and other businesses. So has the response.

Monetary donations to the food bank are on pace to top last year’s contributions, helping to fund a larger storage space and new mobile distribution sites required to distribute food safely during the crisis.

“The only good thing about this pandemic is that it’s made people care a little bit more about their neighbors,” said Christopher Ivey, director of marketing for Forgotten Harvest, one of the largest food banks in Michigan.

The economic crisis set off by the pandemic has widened the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the United States in new ways. People who can work from home, often in higher-income jobs, are comfortable.

But over 20 million Americans rely on unemployment benefits, and hunger and poverty are rising.

The expanded rift has been accompanied by an outpouring of donations to local food banks, crowdfunding campaigns and other aid to financially devastated Americans.

Amazon shareholder Mackenzie Scott’s $4 billion in charitable contributions, announced earlier this month, may be the biggest. But plenty of Americans are also chipping in, donating $10 or $20, some for the first time ever.

Many non-profits have suffered this year as the pandemic shuttered galas and fundraisers. But donations to some small and mid-sized charitable organizations were up 7.6% in the first nine months of 2020 over 2019, according to a recent analysis by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which tracks nearly 2,500 groups. The number of donors is up by 11.7%.

The trend seems to have continued in December, typically the most active time for charitable giving in the United States, early data show. Charities received $2.47 billion in donations on Dec. 1, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving known as GivingTuesday, up 25% from 2019.

“People are giving like we’ve never seen before,” said Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer for GivingTuesday.

Much of that is coming in small dollar amounts, suggesting that people across the income spectrum are stepping up their contributions, Rosenbaum said.

About 70% of the donations made to campaigns on GoFundMe were under $50 this year, up from 40% in 2019, according to a spokesperson for the fundraising website.

“What we have now is much more collective action,” said Rosenbaum.

America’s Food Fund, started this year, raised over $44 million on GoFundMe, the largest campaign ever on the fundraising website. Long-time programs like the United States Post Office’s Operation Santa, which matches donors with needy families who send letters to a special North Pole address, report unprecedented support.

Jonathan Cummings, executive director for Revive South Jersey, a ministry started in 2012 to tutor English, mentor and provide housing help in local communities, says a “groundswell” of volunteers signed up to deliver food every two weeks after the organization realized that many of the families it supports were struggling to afford groceries.

Giving Tuesday donations tracked by Share Omaha, a Nebraska organization that supports local nonprofits, nearly doubled this year from 2019, to over $3 million, with a third coming from first-time donors. When the group asked for volunteers earlier in the year for packing meals for the homeless and other tasks, it got 700 applications, up from the 200 monthly average.

“Even if people are out of work or furloughed, they want to give back to the community,” said Marjorie Maas, executive director for the organization.

Janette McCabe was one of the hundreds of people waiting in cars before sunrise on the Monday before Christmas in a parking lot in Warren, Michigan, for a Forgotten Harvest food bank distribution.

McCabe and her husband lost their jobs recently and have been relying on food stamps. She has been coming to the food bank distribution for about a month and a half.

“The volunteers are fantastic,” McCabe said. “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have them.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Emily Elconin; Editing by Heather Timmons and Dan Grebler)

Trump or Biden’s big economic challenge: millions of struggling Americans

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – The winner of the race for the White House will face a generation of low-to-middle income Americans struggling to get back to work because of a health crisis not seen in more than 100 years.

Whether it’s President Donald Trump or Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden, the reality is grim: about half of the 22 million who lost their jobs during the pandemic are still out of work.

New hiring is slowing, dimming prospects for the low-wage workers hit hardest by job losses. Infections of the virus that killed more than 225,000 Americans are rising to new records. Hotels, transportation companies and food providers warn that more layoffs are coming, and the government aid that helped many pay the bills is long gone.

Securing a future for a vast, growing underclass “is the most important challenge America faces over the next few years, 10 years, 20 years,” said Gene Ludwig, a former comptroller of the currency under President Bill Clinton and author of “The Vanishing American Dream,” a book about the economic challenges facing lower and middle income Americans.

“We cannot sustain a democratic society that has these kinds of numbers of low and middle income people that aren’t able to have a hope for the American dream and live decently.”

Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration have been trying to negotiate a $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill, but many Senate Republicans object to the cost and question whether more stimulus is needed. A deal may not be reached until early 2021.

SAVINGS DRY UP

That’s going to be too late for some.

Direct cash payments and enhanced unemployment benefits established by the CARES Act, which added $600 a week to state unemployment benefits, lifted more Americans out of poverty in April even as unemployment soared, according to research by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University.

People receiving the enhanced benefits were able to spend more, build savings and pay off debt, according to an analysis by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

But after the benefits expired at the end of July, poverty is once again on the rise – with the monthly poverty rate reaching 16.7% in September from 15% in February, according to the Columbia study. After a decade of decline, hunger is rising nationwide.

Lisandra Bonilla, 46, saved roughly a third of the enhanced unemployment benefits she received after she was furloughed in late March from her job at an employment agency in Kissimmee, Florida. “I had saved a lot because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.

It was smart planning: in August her benefits were cut to $275 a week before taxes, the maximum in Florida, down from more than $800.

Bonilla returned to work part-time in late September, but now she is struggling to pay the bills on half her previous pay, and fears her savings will be gone by December.

If she isn’t hired full time soon, she needs to find another job.

“We’re trying to shovel ourselves out of the hole, but at the same time the hole is getting bigger,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Two factors are particularly worrying, she said. More than 420,000 small businesses shuttered between March and mid-summer, which is more than three times the typical pace, she estimates. And permanent layoffs are also on the rise, hitting 3.8 million in September from 1.3 million in February – similar to levels seen before the 2008 election.

THE LONGTERM UNEMPLOYMENT TRAP

Bishop Donald Harper has been on more than 50 job interviews since he was furloughed in March.

Harper, 55, a veteran chef, most recently oversaw five restaurants at an Orlando resort. But with occupancy still low, it’s not clear when he’ll get back to work.

Applications for jobs at super markets or in health care have also been fruitless.

“I can do anything and everything,” said Harper, who also serves as a bishop for a nondenominational church. He is struggling to pay for food and utilities on $275-a-week unemployment, and three months behind on his $1,900 a month rent.

“I don’t want to be homeless,” said Harper, who lives with two children ages 10 and 13. He has reached out to more than 20 groups seeking rental assistance, with no luck.

The United States has 2.4 million and growing “long-term” unemployed, officially defined as those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Getting everyone back to work is crucial, but economists say these job seekers are at greater risk of dropping out of the labor market or taking lower paying jobs.

This week, the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to report that Gross Domestic Product surged in the third quarter, thanks in part to fiscal stimulus that kept U.S. workers afloat, but has mostly expired.

Now, people who are out of work or in low-wage jobs need rental support, direct cash payments and food assistance, as well as federal jobs projects and retraining programs, labor economists say.

If elected, Biden has pledged to raise the federal minimum wage, and roll out trillions of dollars in infrastructure and green energy programs. But he’ll need the votes in Congress to do it.

Trump has signaled support for more federal stimulus, but has offered fewer specifics on jobs.

Until help arrives, workers are struggling.

Rachel Alvarez, 44, a single mother of three in Naples, Florida, starts a new job this week as a server at a restaurant – her first time working since she lost her job in March.

Restaurant workers who depend on tips aren’t making much money, because business remains slow due to the coronavirus, she said. She hasn’t paid rent since June, and is still waiting to hear from the county government about a grant.

“I’m going to keep my head up, because if shit like this ever happens to my children I want them to keep their head up too,” said Alvarez.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte. Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Heather Timmons and Edward Tobin)

U.S. median income hit record high before coronavirus hit, Census says

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. median household income hit a record high in 2019 and the poverty rate fell, according to a government survey released on Tuesday that offered a snapshot of the economy before millions of American jobs were destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau said real median household income jumped 6.8% from $64,324 in 2018 to $68,703 last year – the highest since the agency began tracking the data in 1967.

It also said the nation’s poverty rate fell last year to 10.5%, a 1.3-percentage-point drop. Another measure of poverty that adjusts for government aid programs for low-income Americans showed a drop to 11.7% last year from 12.8% in 2018.

At the same time, however, the number of people without health insurance for at least part of the year hit 29.6 million, up one million from the year before. The number of uninsured children also grew.

The report offered a look back at the state of the economy before the novel coronavirus outbreak hit the United States early this year, shuttering many businesses as the country sought to contain the pandemic.

Since then, more than 6.5 million people in the United States have contracted the highly contagious virus and more than 194,000 have died. Vast swaths of the economy were devastated and 22 million Americans were thrown out of work.

While activity is now rebounding, economists warn that the recovery may be uneven as federal stimulus money runs out with no signs of replenishment from Washington. A potential second wave of COVID-19 infections this autumn and winter as people move back indoors also looms large.

President Donald Trump, who had staked his re-election on economic gains before the outbreak, has downplayed impact of the virus and the risk of another wave, as he has urged states to fully re-open. He has also repeatedly touted gains on Wall Street – a narrow gauge of economic performance – and pledged to rebuild the economy if he wins a second term.

His Democratic rival in the Nov. 3 election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said the gains since COVID-19 emerged have been uneven and have left many segments of the working population still reeling.

“Those at the top see things going up. But those in the middle and below see things getting worse. And we have leaders who bear false witness, want us to believe that our country isn’t gone off track,” Biden said on Monday.

A Reuters/Ispos poll in late August showed American’s support for Trump’s handling of the economy has slipped.

The income and poverty data for 2019, the last year of the economic expansion following the 2007-2009 Great Recession, “do not reflect the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic or the current recession,” Census’ Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division chief David Waddington told reporters on a conference call.

Census officials and private economists cautioned that the COVID-19 outbreak impacted data collection as the agency suspended in-person interviews earlier this year.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann; additional reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy)

Most people want billionaires to pitch in to aid poverty and inequality

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Eight out of 10 people think billionaires should help end poverty, inequality and a host of global ills, a poll showed on Wednesday, as funding shortages and the new coronavirus stymied hopes of meeting the United Nations’ development goals for 2030.

The ambitious plans, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were agreed unanimously by U.N. member states in 2015 with a list of targets to end hunger, gender inequality, and boost access to education and healthcare by 2030.

But researchers said there was now a shortfall of $400 billion a year to achieve those goals – with a financing gap of $350 billion in the 59 poorest countries alone – which would have global implications.

“Philanthropy can step in and plug huge critical gaps,” said Michael Sheldrick, chief policy officer at Global Citizen, an anti-poverty group, which surveyed almost 27,000 people in 25 countries together with Glocalities, a Dutch research agency.

“The COVID-19 is an example of that,” Sheldrick told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in New York.

“You’ve seen this upsurge in philanthropy, and our hope is that we can channel this into funding the SDGs more broadly.”

Organisations started by billionaires, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook, have donated millions towards testing, protective gear and other campaigns to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. [nL1N2B24YT][nFWN2BH18Q]

Twitter’s Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey earlier this month pledged $1 billion to a charitable fund to help relief efforts related to the coronavirus pandemic, with money later to be directed to girls’ health and education. [nL4N2BV4KS]

Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma pledged through his foundation to donate over 1 million coronavirus testing kits as well as masks, protective suits and ventilators to Africa.

WEALTH TAX OR PHILANTHROPY?

The poll found 82% of people said billionaires should help and contribute to funding the global goals.

On average there was more support for billionaires doing this through philanthropy, with 46% of respondents in favour of voluntary philanthropic donations, but 35% said they should pay a wealth tax to fund the sustainable development goals.

The countries most in favour of billionaires contributing to fund the SDGs were Indonesia, Vietnam and Portugal, while Japan, the Netherlands and the United States came last in the list of 25 countries.

The survey also found that people aged over 55 or aged 18 to 34 were more of the belief that billionaires should pitch in.

People with a higher education level were more in favour of billionaires playing a role, with 85% support, compared to 74% support from those with a lower education.

Experts have warned that the 2030 deadline to meet the U.N.’s development goals is at risk as economies suffer in the fight against the virus, public financing dries up and international cooperation wanes.

Around the world, there are more than 2,000 billionaires worth a combined $10 trillion, said Martijn Lampert, research director of Glocalities.

“People see that billionaires have a moral obligation to contribute,” he said. “This crisis shows the huge inequalities there are, and in the end I think every billionaire has to show his or her true color.”

The $350 billion shortfall, a calculation made prior to the pandemic, breaks down to about $200 per person in the 59 poorest countries, according to Global Citizen.

“We will need to tax high-net worth, especially after the current disaster,” said Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative, who was involved in the study.

“Budgets everywhere are in disarray,” he said in emailed comments. “Inequality plus COVID-19 are leading to a profound social crisis.”

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Katy Migiro and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

In farm-rich Argentina, hunger cries ring in leaders’ ears amid crisis

In farm-rich Argentina, hunger cries ring in leaders’ ears amid crisis
By Nicolás Misculin and Miguel Lobianco

CLAYPOLE, Argentina (Reuters) – In the hard-up neighborhood of Claypole on the outskirts of Argentine capital Buenos Aires, Elena Escobar makes her way to the local Caritas Felices soup kitchen to serve food to street children who scrape by from meal to meal.

Escobar, 53, says the volunteer-run kitchen has seen a surge of kids and families seeking help over the last few months, amid a biting recession and fast-rising prices that have pushed millions of people into poverty.

“There are many children in need, many malnourished, with kids that get to dinner time and don’t have any food,” said Escobar. The kitchen receives over 100 children each week, up from around 20-30 when it opened its doors in April.

The rise in hunger and poverty creates a complex backdrop for the leaders of Latin America’s no. 3 economy, who are in knife-edge talks with creditors to avoid default on billions of dollars of debt amid economic and political upheaval.

Ahead of a presidential election on Oct. 27, officials will head to Washington this month to meet with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a major backer that struck a $57 billion funding deal with the country last year.

Those talks are likely to weigh on the current administration of President Mauricio Macri and the next one, likely led by left-leaning Peronist Alberto Fernandez, the front-runner to win the vote.

The Claypole kitchen is far from alone in witnessing rising hardship, with government data showing poverty rates jumped to 35% in the first half of 2019 amid recession and steep inflation, from 27.3% a year earlier.

‘A SCOURGE’

Around 13% of children and adolescents went hungry in 2018, according to data from the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina, and rising food prices have become a regular target of popular anger in street protests around the country.

Political leaders know something must be done, but face a complex juggling act: bolstering growth and spending to ease issues such as hunger, while cutting debt and averting a damaging default that would shut off access to global markets.

“We can’t live in peace with such a scourge,” left-leaning Fernandez said in a speech on Monday in reference to hunger, which he described as Argentina’s “greatest shame.”

Fernandez, who has been buoyed by support for populist running mate Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, blames Macri and austerity measures agreed with the International Monetary Fund for the rise in poverty and hunger.

Macri’s running mate, Miguel Pichetto, meanwhile, said on Monday the way to eradicate hunger was to generate employment and attract “big global companies” to Argentina.

Both sides have said they would honor the country’s debts with creditors, including the IMF, though neither has laid out a clear plan for how to do so while boosting spending at home.

Most investors expect some sort of losses.

Indeed, Moody’s Investors Service anticipates holders of Argentina dollar bonds will need to write off  10% to 20% of their investments, while Fitch Ratings believes the government will write down local and dollar debt.

‘JUST NO WORK’

Hunger and poverty are not new in Argentina, but have risen abruptly over the past two years amid a series of economic shocks that have rattled the grain-exporting nation, famed for its rich arable land and cattle.

The issues have become a lightning rod for anti-government protests and marches, with the hardships of the poor brought into sharp focus as the government has been locked in talks with creditors about repayments on around $100 billion in debts.

Driving the problem is stubborn inflation, a tumbling peso and a slump in domestic production and consumption, which have hurt spending power, incomes and jobs.

“There is just no work,” said 46-year-old Isabel Britez, a volunteer at the Los Piletones dining room in Buenos Aires, who said that was the main message she heard from people eating at the kitchen, which serves around 2,000 meals a day.

Macri, looking to revive his election hopes, has rolled out plans to bolster jobs, including tax cuts for employers. He also announced a freeze on some food prices earlier this year.

Sergio Chouza, an economist at the University of Avellaneda in Buenos Aires, said food prices have rocketed nearly 60% over the past year, with basics such as dairy up as much as 90%.

“That results in a deterioration of diets and pushes many people below the poverty line,” he said.

MORE NOODLES, LESS MEAT

Poverty is a key reason for Macri’s fall from grace. His economic austerity, part of the $57 billion funding deal agreed with the IMF last year, reined in deficits but hit growth and voters’ wallets.

Macri was defeated heavily in a primary election in August. Since then, he has announced lower taxes for the middle class and higher subsidies for the poor along with food aid. The Senate approved an emergency food law last month.

“Perhaps we underestimated the impact of the economic situation on the elections. (The poverty issue) affected the vote for Mauricio,” Eduardo Amadeo, a Macri ally and member of Argentina’s house of deputies, told Reuters.

“The reforms we launched have stabilized the economy and we have tried to reduce the impact from the devaluation in August on people’s wallets,” Amadeo said.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Social Development listed official measures to deal with the crisis, but declined to comment further on poverty rates.

In the meantime, even as soup kitchens flourish, some volunteers say meals are getting more meager amid tight funding conditions and as food donations dry up.

“Previously, people donated some meat and chicken; now we only get noodles and rice,” said Lorena Nievas, who works at the Abrazando Hogares soup kitchen in the southern Patagonian city of Puerto Madryn.

For many residents, however, there is no choice.

“I have people from the street who come in for their lunch and snacks here. It’s all the food they get,” she said.

(Reporting by Nicolas Misculin and Miguel Lobianco; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Bernadette Baum)