Lives versus livelihoods: the COVID-19 pandemic and labour markets in Arab States

Lives versus livelihoods: the COVID-19 pandemic and labour markets in Arab States

Dec 28, 2021

Since it began in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the world economy. The impact on Arab countries and their citizens can be framed by the trade-off between lives and livelihoods: the attempt to save lives by imposing social distancing and strict lockdowns has had a severe impact on the ability of workers to maintain their livelihoods as businesses have downsized or shut down in the face of declining demand. Arab countries have also suffered from the simultaneous oil price shock, which has had both direct effects on oilexporting countries and indirect impacts on oil-importing and fragile countries, through the effect on migrant workers. In this study, we investigate the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, examining both demand- and supply-side effects. We analyse the characteristics of workers employed in the industries deemed to be at highest risk of a decline in economic activity and complement this with a study of the extent to which jobs can be successfully performed remotely. We develop a teleworkability index using micro data on occupational characteristics. We find that relatively few jobs in Arab countries are compatible with teleworking. While this share varies considerably by industry, gender, age and the nature of employment (formal vs informal), the digital divide (a lack of reliable access to vital tools for teleworking, such as a personal computer and reliable Internet access) make teleworking unlikely in practice even for those whose jobs could potentially be performed remotely. Our results confirm that the workers who were most vulnerable before the pandemic will be the hardest hit.

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