How a microscopic virus shines a searchlight on the world’s inequalities

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unequal, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest – and nowhere is this clearer than in Africa. By David McNair, Executive Director, Global Policy, at ONE,“a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030 so that everyone, everywhere can lead a life of dignity and opportunity”.

COVID-19 in the largest crisis we’ve seen in a generation affecting almost everyone on the planet. But its effects have been far from equal. For a tiny virus that doesn’t respect borders, nationality, or income, the direct effects and the aftershocks have not only mirrored existing inequalities but exacerbated them.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, saw his wealth grow by $32bn between March and June 2020. Meanwhile the virus itself has hit poorer communities, those with existing health conditions and older people hardest. The economic after-effects have discriminated against those in low-paying, informal jobs around the world.

COVID-19 impact on young Africa

For the African continent, while the direct health impacts have, to date, been relatively limited, the economic aftershocks are high on the Richter scale.

The ONE Campaign, where I work, has created the ONE Africa COVID-19 Tracker to monitor these impacts. Even before COVID-19 hit, a population more than twice the size of the United States regularly went to bed hungry. Some 135 million were experiencing hunger so severe that it threatened their lives and livelihoods. With COVID-19, this number is expected to double by the end of 2020 to reach over a quarter of a billion people. Migrant remittances, an economic lifeline for one in ten people on the planet, will fall by 20% – the sharpest decline in history.

The full picture of the intergenerational effects of COVID-19 is yet to emerge. But for a virus that targets older people, the long-term fallout is likely to weigh heavily on younger people. And that burden will inevitably fall disproportionately on Africa because it is the world’s youngest continent. And it’s a continent long beset by crises and difficult challenges that today’s youth will inherit. As a prominent African artist told me last week, “Africa has many crises, COVID-19 is just another one.”

Progress interrupted

Before COVID-19, we were living through a silent crisis: the crisis of global learning. In poorer countries, 90% of children aged ten cannot read and understand a simple sentence. This is worse than it already sounds: reading is the passport to learning new skills for a lifetime. COVID-19 is accelerating this well-established trend of wasted human potential.

At the peak of the crisis, 90% of enrolled learners, some 1.6 billion children around the world, had been pushed out of classrooms. Parents and carers have had to cope with a new reality in which their children are home all day. For those whose parents lack the skills and resources to home-school, the lost learning opportunities will set them back further.

For the 310 million children in low- and lower-middle-income countries that rely on a daily meal at school the impact of poor nutrition could be life-long. When schools do reopen, those that have fallen the furthest behind will struggle to catch up.

What’s more, lost learning compounds over time. This will hinder the recovery. Past crises show that five years later, the employment prospects of those with basic levels of education are affected; those with higher levels of education are scarcely affected. Lost learning could reverberate for decades and across generations: after World War II, negative impacts on earnings were felt 40 years later.

Crisis upon crisis

Following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the combination of government austerity programmes, low interest rates and a decline in investment in OECD countries meant there were few job opportunities and fewer government supported training programmes, which, combined with high housing prices, pushed home-ownership out of reach of many young people. The average age for purchasing a first home in the UK rose from 31 in 2007 to 33 ten years later.

The scale of this economic crisis is predicted to be longer and deeper and its effects greater in poorer countries. The World Bank predicts the first rise in extreme poverty in two decades, with an additional 71–100 million people living on less than $1.90 per day. In Africa, the youth bulge means that to meet the demand of young people entering the labour market, 22 million jobs need to be created every year. The scale of investment in education and infrastructure needed to make this happen, particularly in digital skills and connectivity, is unlikely to occur given how indebted countries across the world have become.

Silver linings

But if we seize the opportunity, there could be a number of silver linings to this crisis.

Throughout history, major crises have often led to major reforms. A cholera epidemic in 1854 finally spurred action to address London’s “Great Stink”. World War I led to the creation of the League of Nations. The Great Depression yielded the New Deal (in the US). World War II led to the creation of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the Marshall Plan, ushered in two decades of rapid economic growth and financial prosperity for an expanded middle class in Europe and North America, resulted in more equitable food security and higher life expectancy in the UK, and helped fuel independence movements across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

We are already seeing African leaders and citizens who may be short on cash displaying solidarity, cooperation and community spirit in abundance. Spurred by COVID-19, education ministers are quickly developing distance learning innovations to reach those out of school.

Public sentiment has shifted dramatically. In 2018, polls in the US showed 87% described the country as “divided”. In March 2020, this had declined to 48%. In the UK between February and May 2020, the proportion of people agreeing to the statement ‘we look after each-other’  had increased from 26% to 61%. The recent campaigns on racial justice have shown that when people come together to demand change, governments listen.

Three demands for a better post-COVID world

Of course, the world is more fragmented than before and there is also a plausible scenario in which we emerge from the crisis more indebted, fearful, and authoritarian than before. But there are bright spots that we can and should harness with people power to demand better from our leaders.

So here are three things that I think we should all be demanding as we emerge from this crisis: 

  1. Make sure a pandemic like this never happens again by investing in tools, labs, PPE stockpiles and data-sharing agreements. Some experts suggest the cost would be $10bn a year. If you want to see how this compares to the cost of not making this investment check out this video.
  2. Invest in future generations by making sure every child can read by the age of ten: Education has been chronically under-invested in for decades, and the money that is spent could be used much more effectively. Leaders should develop a global plan to increase resources and target them towards delivering outcomes. The waste of human potential that comes with poor education is nothing short of criminal; the rewards of investment in economic and social terms are transformational.
  3. Build Back Different by addressing the climate crisis: The EU is already leading on an ambitious package to respond to COVID-19 with major green energy and transport solutions. Governments and businesses should follow, and fulfil their Paris climate commitments while creating jobs and building a sustainable economy for the next generation.

In 2020, despite our divisions, everyone on the planet is united against a common enemy. Defeating it will require cooperation and solidarity. Taking that cooperation and solidarity and applying it to humanity’s other great challenges would be a fitting tribute to all those who have suffered so much during this pandemic.

Photo by Bill Wegener on Unsplash: