See all covid-19 essays

It is now well understood that covid-19 is much more than a crisis in global health. Since its emergence in early 2020, the pandemic has plunged many economies into recession, disrupted most activities, and wrought havoc with people’s lives. Many of the most significant effects are not direct consequences of the virus itself, but of the policies that desperate governments have introduced in response, either to limit the spread of the virus or to protect certain parts of the economy or society from it. The effectiveness of these policies depends upon institutions: not only formal institutions, such as those mechanisms which co-ordinate the health response, enforce lockdown measures, supply emergency relief, organise social protection and restart the economy, but also informal institutions such as the networks through which information and is communicated, trust is developed, and communities are mobilised.

Conversely, the pandemic also affects institutions – it may challenge or strengthen social norms, break down or exacerbate existing patterns of inequality, and destabilise or perhaps reinforce the balance of political power. Taking an institutional perspective, therefore, allows us to simultaneously consider the multiple ways in which covid-19 is affecting developing countries, and to look beyond the immediate impacts of the virus to the deeper and more long-term implications.

In a new collection of essays, EDI researchers explore these themes, applying a range of research methods to better understand the institutional impact of covid-19.

The first of these, Soledad Prillaman’s The Power of Women’s Collective Action looks at women’s empowerment in the specific context of Self-Help groups in India. This work builds upon previous research which revealed how such groups had enabled collective action and greater political participation, allowing women to further political demands, such as improved access to services or better protection against domestic violence. In the pandemic, some of these groups have been unable to function due to policy restrictions, while others have played an important role in the response, helping to co-ordinate emergency relief, distributing food and medicines, and supplying information. The open and important question considered by Prillaman is whether the previous trends of growing women’s empowerment will be derailed by the former effects or consolidated by the latter.

In the second essay, Criminal Rule covid-19 Survey Report (Medellin), Blattman et al study the gangs of Medellin, Colombia. They are interested in the extent to which these gangs may be performing some of the functions of the state, in providing services, enforcing lockdowns, or supplying goods and information – and in so doing, achieving some level of legitimacy. Contrary to anecdotal evidence, they find that, in fact, citizens do not turn to the gangs for these functions, but instead look to the state to play these vital roles. The pandemic, therefore, may be an opportunity for the state to demonstrate its unique capacity in this regard, and so contribute positively to questions of governance and legitimacy.

The third essay, by Amirapu, Asadullah, and Wahhaj –The Threat to Female Adolescent Development from Covid-19 concerns the tension between traditional institutions, specifically patriarchal, gender norms in the home, and state institutions, through the provision of female education or training and the enactment or strengthening of laws. The premise of the essay is that covid-19 has disturbed the balance between these two forms of institutions, initially through lockdown measures which disrupted schooling and employment, and perhaps also in more long-term ways which are yet to be understood. The essay identifies the phenomenon of child marriage as an indicator of the strength of patriarchal institutions and seeks to determine whether these covid-19 effects are altering the incidence of the phenomenon in any way.

Over the next couple of months, we will publish several more essays written by EDI researchers on the EDI website. Upcoming essays cover a number of topics including the exposure of Chinese firms to covis-19 shock, vulnerable groups in India, as well as the results of two rapid research projects into responses to covid-19 which were undertaken during the pandemic.

The fourth essay, Vulnerable Groups and the COVID-19: The Indian Case by Ramachandran, Rustagi and Soldani also explores vulnerability and the extent to which COVID-19 may exacerbate existing inequities. It is concerned with the Scheduled Castes in India, a group which is already considerably disadvantaged compared with the rest of population in most respects, including living conditions, general health, education, access to savings or social protection, and stability of income flows. The essay argues that long-standing patterns of prejudice and discrimination against the Scheduled Castes render them especially vulnerable to effects of COVID-19, in that they suffer greater exclusion from government schemes, such as NREGA or PDS, and public services, such as education. The essay concludes by outlining a future research agenda for investigating the nature of discrimination (in the education system) and on effective policy to promote human capital amongst the Scheduled Castes to counter this.

In the fifth essay, Exposure of Chinese Firms to the Covid-19 Shock: Assessing the Role of Production Clusters and Hometown Entrepreneur Networks, Dai, Mookherjee, Yingyue Quan, and Xiaobo Zhang consider the performance of production clusters in response to shocks (such as COVID-19) in comparison with other forms of industrial organization. The main finding, based on comparisons across Chinese counties, is that clusters did indeed confer greater resilience to the COVID-19 shock, as measured in terms of entry flows, and after controlling for other factors. A second finding is that social connectedness is not the reason for this resilience – an examination of hometown entrepreneur networks suggests that more connected networks were worse affected by COVID. Instead, through entrepreneur surveys the research seeks to establish which other mechanisms may have conferred the resilience, such as stability of local suppliers and customers or lower capital-labour ratios. Perhaps surprisingly the areas with higher prevalence of clusters relied more on migrant labour than local workers. It seems likely that this latter feature was indeed a disadvantage, due to greater disruptions in worker availability, but that these were off-set by the advantages coming from greater proximity to supplier and customer bases and fewer liquidity problems due to low capital-labour ratios.

The sixth essay, How the Zimbabweans pay for the war against Covid-19 by Davies, Mehlum, Moene, and Torvik explains how various aspects of Zimbabwe’s economy and political economy affect the impact of COVID-19. It is interested in two main channels through which these effects occur: firstly, the structural differences in the economy between the rural and urban poor and the extent to which these differences confer some resilience to the former whilst heightening the vulnerability of the latter; and secondly, in the political economy characteristics of the country which, in part, created these differences in the first place and which now may also play a key role in determining the policy response to COVID-19. Tragically, the essay anticipates that populist attitudes within the ruling Zanu-PF party, which already carry a rural bias, will result in policies that do little to protect this vulnerable urban population, and may even deliberately exploit and exacerbate this vulnerability for political ends. Its grim, but powerful, conclusion, is that bad policies may make good politics.