COVID-19 recovery measures could prevent widening inequalities due to pandemic
Insufficient response to the crisis will likely worsen physical, economic health of already disadvantaged groups
As COVID-19 reveals wide differences in outcomes between various social groups the pandemic is also an opportunity for policymakers to take measures that will reduce inequalities in the long term, according to a new policy brief released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs today.
As if the health consequences of the pandemic are not dire enough, evidence shows further that the COVID-19 crisis could result in increasing levels of poverty and inequality—generating impacts lasting for years, perhaps even generations. But the new policy brief finds that with proper responses, these ever-widening inequalities are not inevitable. However, an insufficient response to the crisis and its economic and social impacts will likely deepen inequality, intensifying public discontent and weakening trust in institutions.
Efforts to reduce the chances of being infected, such as social distancing, are more difficult where population densities are high, as in major urban centers with packed transit systems, or for people living in small, crowded households, slums, migrant worker housing or refugee camps. For the three billion people without basic handwashing facilities at home, frequent handwashing to stay safe, remains a tough challenge.
Empirical data to date show that, once people are infected, outcomes tend to be more severe for older adults, men, and those with weaker immune systems or pre-existing health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Several of these pre-existing conditions tend to occur more frequently in disadvantaged groups, who may also be less likely to have access to quality health care, or more likely to live and work in conditions that increase the risk of infection.
Further exacerbating inequalities are differences in access to coping strategies, such as financial savings or social protection opportunities. In general, the already disadvantaged, such as women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples, stand to see their conditions worsen disproportionately through increasing poverty, reduced access to services and heightened vulnerability within the household.
However, historical evidence from other major crises, such as the Great Depression and the Great Recession, shows that when governments stepped up health care and social protection, including measures to preserve wage income, inequality fell after the initial shock.
According to the policy brief, governments can take steps to turn the COVID-19 crisis into a transformative moment for reducing inequality.
This includes accelerating the establishment of systems to ensure universal provision of quality services such as health care, education, sanitation and social protection and making sure these have “surge capacities”. Although comprehensive social protection systems require significant investment up-front, the recurrent costs of providing basic social protection floors are affordable in most countries.
The new policy brief also calls for widespread testing for the virus and the availability of adequately disaggregated data—both necessary to identify inequalities in exposure, vulnerability and outcomes. Longer-term investments in building data collection capacities, including through civil registration systems, are also essential.
Greater investment in jobs and livelihoods is needed. With about 1.6 billion informal workers – half of the world’s workforce –at high risk of losing their livelihoods due to COVID-19, governments need to emphasize protecting jobs or restoring them safely.
In addition, the brief calls on the international community to strengthen their coordination to respond effectively to disparities across countries. The United Nations can play a leading role in facilitating this coordination, by engaging all stakeholders and fostering partnerships to build developing countries’ social sectors in ways that reduce inequalities.
The UN DESA COVID-19 policy briefs can be found at bit.ly/UNDESACovid.