By Michelle Toh, CNN Business

Dipali Roy could not afford to eat.

She and her husband, Pradip Roy, were working in textiles in Bangladesh when the Covid-19 pandemic hit last spring, leading to massive layoffs at their factory.

Like millions of people around the world, they both lost their jobs in the capital, Dhaka, where they had worked for years making pants, shirts and jackets. And like countless other migrants, they have been forced to move to the countryside to reduce their expenses.

The World Bank estimates that 97 million people around the world fell into poverty due to the pandemic in 2020, living on less than $ 2 a day.

There has been little improvement since. “Globally, the increase in poverty that occurred in 2020 due to Covid persists, and the poor people induced by Covid in 2021 continue to represent 97 million people,” World Bank economists said in a blog post earlier this year. They noted, however, that overall poverty is expected to decline this year.

“We barely had enough to get home,” Dipali Roy said in an interview in Bengali from the family home, a corrugated iron shack in a village in northern Bangladesh.

As the couple searched for new ways to make a living, they struggled to adjust. They tried to find a loan to start a small business, but at first no one was able or willing to help them. Some local associations the organizations asked for guarantees, which they did not have.

In the hope of getting a job in agriculture, Pradip Roy approaches a few farmers. But he was dismissed as a “man from Dhaka” who would not be able to cope with the harsh weather conditions, his wife said.

Mainly, “the food was the biggest problem,” said Dipali Roy, 20, who was pregnant at the time and could sometimes only have one meal a day thanks to a public rationing program. “I didn’t know what to do… We just had to sit down and wait when they brought food.”

2020 has brought a historic setback in the fight against global poverty, with the number of the world’s poorest people increasing for the first time in more than 20 years, according to the World Bank.

Carolina Sánchez-Páramo, global director of poverty and equity at the World Bank, compared the pandemic to a natural disaster that would rapidly spread beyond its epicenter in East Asia.

“We knew the tsunami was coming,” she told CNN Business.

“The question was not whether this [economic shock] would reach other developing regions, but when.

Growing inequalities

Even as tens of millions of people were pushed into poverty, the ultra-rich became richer. Billionaires enjoyed the biggest increase in their share of wealth on record last year, according to the World Inequality Lab.

And while it took just nine months for the world’s 1,000 richest people to recover their fortunes during the pandemic, it could be more than a decade before the less fortunate recover, according to the Oxfam International annual report on inequalities, published in January.

Shameran Abed, executive director of BRAC International, a non-profit organization fighting poverty in Asia and Africa, highlighted the widening wealth gap, saying “the three richest people in the world” could possibly eliminate extreme poverty on Earth.

“It is not their only responsibility,” he added. “But I’m just saying that in general there are enough resources [to tackle the problem]. “

Recently, the richest 1% have come under pressure to get involved in humanitarian issues.

In November, the director of the United Nations World Food Program called on billionaires, including the two richest men in the world, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, to “step up their action now, on an ad hoc basis.”

In an interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson, David Beasley said giving $ 6 billion, or roughly 2% of Musk’s net worth, could help solve world hunger.

“[It’s] $ 6 billion to help 42 million people who will literally die if we don’t reach them. It’s not complicated, ”he added.

The call received a direct response from Musk, who later said on Twitter that if the organization could explain “exactly how” the funding would solve the problem, it “would sell Tesla shares right now and do it.”

Tesla’s CEO did not respond publicly when the UN released a plan in November.

What is needed now

Abed, who recently worked with MPs in the UK to declare an “emergency” on the issue, says “poverty is a political choice”.

“We have the know-how to lift a lot of people out of poverty,” said the nonprofit executive, whose team helped the Roys with a loan that the couple said got them back on their feet. .

“There is a lot of evidence of what works, what doesn’t. “

Experts say the first task is to focus on vaccinations.

“We have to make sure that everyone has access to vaccines or some kind of treatment for the pandemic, because until you can control the health shock, it is very difficult to think about the economic recovery, n ‘is this not ? Says Sánchez-Páramo. “It’s almost like a necessary condition for anything else to happen.”

Vaccine inequality has become a major problem as many of the world’s wealthiest countries hoard vaccines, purchasing enough doses to immunize their populations multiple times and breaking their promises to share them with the developing world.

And as governments continue to rebuild, they should also focus on reactivating an economic activity that generates jobs, such as in the service sector, according to Sánchez-Páramo.

Over the past two years, governments around the world have rolled out stimulus packages to help support their respective economies.

Sánchez-Páramo noted that while many have since suffered a “tax burden” on the amount they have spent, it was important not to cancel safety net programs too quickly.

“They [should] wait for employment to resume before withdrawing income support from some of these most vulnerable households, ”she said.

“Because if we consolidate and roll back support too quickly, we could actually see a second wave of increasing poverty because the jobs are not there yet. “

Glimmers of hope

Back in Bangladesh, the Roys are seeing better days.

After securing a loan of 40,000 taka ($ 466), the couple bought a van and a goat to support themselves, they said.

Pradip Roy now works as a driver with his van, carrying passengers for the equivalent of around $ 6 per day. He said the family had no plans to return to town and were now saving to buy a cow and farmland.

While the two are technically lifted out of poverty, the hardships of the coronavirus crisis have left their mark.

Dipali Roy, who described the hunger pangs while pregnant as the “most painful” time of her life, said “if I look back on or remember those times my heart bursts with tears”.

“But now we’re having a really good day,” she added, saying she had regained hope for the future and dreamed that their six-month-old son would get a master’s degree.

Yet they have a reminder for the international community: don’t forget those who remain.

“There are a lot of people like us who have fallen to the bottom of the water,” said Pradip Roy. “So if you stand next to them, they too can get up like us, slowly.”

– Esha Mitra in New Delhi and Ivana Kottasová in London contributed to this report.

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