NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In New Delhi, a fruit vendor whose sales have dropped by half now dilutes the milk she serves to her five children. In central Turkey, a company that runs hot air balloon rides for tourists has banished its 49 employees to indefinite leave while cutting their wages by half.
In Manila, a bartender for an international cruise line finds himself marooned at home, wondering if his savings will last until his ship returns to sea. In Johannesburg, a mother who makes her living braiding hair goes home empty-handed.
And in Buenos Aires, a cabdriver prowls deserted streets for fares, fearful that he will contract the coronavirus, yet more afraid of losing his taxi to repossession. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "This situation is larger than me."
As the coronavirus pandemic brings the global economy to an astonishing halt, the world's most vulnerable countries are suffering intensifying harm. Businesses faced with the disappearance of sales are laying off workers. Households short of income are skimping on food. International investment is fleeing so-called emerging markets at a pace not seen since the global financial crisis of 2008, diminishing the value of currencies and forcing people to pay more for imported goods like food and fuel.
"This will be as bad, or potentially even worse, than the global financial crisis for emerging markets," said Mr Per Hammarlund, chief emerging markets strategist at SEB Group, a global investment bank based in Stockholm. "It is grim."
It is also a threat to global fortunes. Emerging markets account for 60 per cent of the world economy on the basis of purchasing power, according to the International Monetary Fund. A slowdown in developing countries is a slowdown for the planet.
From South Asia to Africa to Latin America, the pandemic is confronting developing countries with a public health emergency combined with an economic crisis, each exacerbating the other. The same forces are playing out in wealthy nations, too. But in poor countries - where billions of people live in proximity to calamity even in the best of times - the dangers are amplified.
It is unfolding just as many governments are burdened by debt that limits their ability to help those in need. Since 2007, total public and private debt in emerging markets has multiplied from about 70 per cent of annual economic output to 165 per cent, according to Oxford Economics.
The pandemic has triggered a sharp reversal of international investment away from emerging markets and toward the safety of US government bonds.
As recently as last year, a group of two dozen emerging markets including China, India, South Africa and Brazil saw net inflows of US$79 billion (S$114.49 billion) in investment, according to the Institute of International Finance. Over the last two months, a net US$70 billion in investment has exited those countries.
That shift has reignited fears that some countries could be sliding toward insolvency and default - especially Argentina, Turkey and South Africa.
"The speed is quite staggering," said Mr Sergi Lanau, the institute's deputy chief economist. "Whoever was vulnerable to begin with definitely faces a really challenging situation."
Most economists assume that a worldwide recession is already underway - a synchronised downturn that is punishing countries indiscriminately, turning traditional economic strengths into alarming vulnerabilities.
In tourist meccas like Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa, the effective imposition of a worldwide quarantine is threatening mass unemployment in the hotel, restaurant and tour industries.
The disruption of industry worldwide has drastically cut demand for commodities, walloping copper producers like Chile, Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia, along with zinc producers like Brazil and India. Oil exporters are especially susceptible to the downturn as prices remain cheap, pressuring Colombia, Algeria, Mozambique, Iraq, Nigeria and Mexico.
Mexico was already in a recession, and many of its jobs are centred on producing goods for the United States, now in a veritable lockdown.
In wealthy nations, quarantines have been mandated, while governments and central banks have unleashed trillions of dollars in spending and credit to limit the economic damage. But in poor countries, where families cram into teeming slums, quarantining may be impossible. People who support themselves by collecting scrap metal harvested from garbage dumps risk hunger if they stay home.
"Some of these countries are going to conduct real-life, unpleasant experiments in the let-it-rip kind of approach, because I just don't see how they can control it," said Mr Gabriel Sterne, head of emerging market macroeconomic research at Oxford Economics. "In a Soweto township, how do you self-isolate? The social consequences of death among the weak and the elderly are going to be just monstrous."
India, a country of 1.3 billion people, appears profoundly exposed, even as the official number of coronavirus cases appears limited. On Tuesday (March 24), Indian prime minister Narendra Modi declared a national lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.
On a recent afternoon, on a street leading to New Delhi's main railway station, people running sidewalk businesses were confronted by a perilous shift: The streets were empty.
Mr Mahender, 60, who shines shoes, slept by the roadside, his head propped on the cloth bag that holds the tools of his trade. Before the coronavirus, he earned about 400 rupees (S$7.59) per day. Now, he makes 100 rupees.
Even before the outbreak, India was gripped by an economic slowdown. Mr Modi's government has failed to generate promised jobs, while drawing accusations that it doctored the official books to mask the extent of unemployment.
Faced with laments about a disappointing economy, Mr Modi has stoked Hindu nationalism. The police have sided with Hindu mobs in bloody conflicts with minority Muslims. None of this will be eased by a public health catastrophe twinned with mass unemployment.
"You would have to have some blind faith to argue that India isn't in a massive slowdown," said Ms Swati Dhingra, an economist at the London School of Economics. "Now, you bring in another major force, and one that will asymmetrically hit poorer people. This could turn into something really quite bad."
Argentina was in peril before the pandemic. Its currency, the peso, lost more than two-thirds of its value in 2018 and 2019, as inflation exceeded 50 per cent. Its economy contracted by 2 per cent last year, the continuation of a long-running slide in national fortunes. Government debt approached 90 per cent of annual economic output, a flashing signal of distress.
A new government, headed by President Alberto Fernández, was confronting a potentially impossible arithmetic problem: How could it reverse unpopular cuts to programmes like cash grants for poor households without spooking international investors, hastening the exodus of money? How could the government unleash spending and pay back the US$57 billion that it had borrowed from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?
Last week, IMF's managing director Kristalina Georgieva signalled flexibility. In a written statement, she cited the pandemic in declaring a need for "substantial debt relief from Argentina's private creditors." But the danger was deepening. The currency was down another 6 per cent against the dollar this year. Poverty appeared certain to worsen, demanding government resources.
"It is difficult to think that Argentina will be able to obtain financing from anywhere," said Ms Maria Castiglioni Cotter, director of C&T Asesores Económicos, a consultancy in Buenos Aires. Yet "the government now has to increase public spending," she added, or "risk a total collapse."
In Turkey, companies are saturated in debt, much of it in foreign currencies. The debts are the result of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's pursuit of growth at any cost. He has jailed his enemies and seized their assets, while protecting those who borrow to finance monuments to his prowess, like a new Istanbul airport.
In recent years, investors have evacuated their money, sending the Turkish lira plunging while threatening companies with bankruptcy. The pandemic threatens to reignite that crisis. Turkey's currency has dropped 10 per cent since January. Tourism - about one-tenth of the Turkish economy - has been decimated.
In Cappadocia, a landscape of stupendous conical rock formations, Mr Deniz Turgut, 37, part-owner of Butterfly Balloons, has found himself staring at continuing expenses and vanishing revenue.
Last year, the company carried about 20,000 tourists on hot air balloons. In February, the company had only 43 customers, fewer than its 49 employees. Mr Turgut reluctantly furloughed his workers.
"We don't know when this will end," he said.
Before the pandemic, South Africa was in dire straits - its economy in recession, the unemployment rate above 29 per cent. Since the pandemic emerged, South Africa's currency has plunged more than 20 per cent, forcing prices for goods higher.
Ms Siphilisiwe Nyathi, who makes her living braiding hair, has been forced to pay extra to rent a chair at a hair salon in Johannesburg. Hair extensions imported from China cost more, too.
On a good Saturday, she typically earns 2,000 rand (S$165). Last Saturday, she made nothing. She paid the fare for the cramped minibus from her home in a mixed-income township to the city, nearly an hour away. She stood on the sidewalk fidgeting and was not approached by a single customer.
"We're stuck," she said. "We don't know what to do."
In Manila, Mr Reynaldo Tating, 57, is enduring an unwanted home leave.
Like millions of Filipinos who work abroad in industries from health care to hospitality, he typically spends eight months a year sailing the world on cruise ships, mixing cocktails for international tourists.
Now, he worries that his employer, a major cruise operator, could go bankrupt.
"I don't know if we can return to our jobs," he said. "Or whether we still have jobs."