How the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the fight to end poverty

April 28, 2020
Written by Olivia Giovetti
Photo by Ed Ram

Urgent action is needed to protect the world’s most fragile populations from both the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways it will impact the causes of poverty.

Most of the world’s poor and displaced people, estimated at 71 million, cannot practice social distancing. For most, access to basic health services is a pipe dream and precautions like regular handwashing with soap is an unaffordable and non-existent luxury. 

Urgent action is needed to protect the world’s most fragile populations from this unfolding threat, not only for the fight against the novel coronavirus, but also for the larger fight against poverty. Here are 7 ways that COVID-19 impacts extreme poverty. 

1. COVID-19 will increase hunger — and may even cause a new global food crisis

Currently, 135 million people go hungry every day. The World Food Program estimates that another 130 million could also face hunger in 2020, leaving an estimated 265 million people without food by the end of the year. Arif Husain, chief economist at the WFP, recently told the New York Times, “We’ve never seen anything like this before. It wasn’t a pretty picture to begin with, but this makes it truly unprecedented and uncharted territory.” 

The World Food Program estimates that the number of people facing hunger could double in 2020 due to the effects of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is already affecting global food systems, supply chains, and purchasing practices. Stockpiling and a growing demand for food items are creating a strain on global supply chains, while restrictions on trade and movement have had a domino effect on food security including an increase in food prices and lower agricultural outputs due to social distancing. Although harvests in many regions have been good this year, there is now a high risk that the broader disruptive effect of COVID-19 will drive up levels of global food insecurity to over a billion people, figures we have not witnessed for a decade. And, as we know with stunting, the effects of the coming hunger crisis could stay with some children for the rest of their lives. 

 2. COVID-19 hits the poorest and marginalized communities the hardest 

One of the chief causes of poverty is inequality and marginalization. Catastrophic events like a pandemic only serve to widen that gap. Even countries with healthy economies and well-resourced systems have struggled to stay ahead of the virus. As we’ve seen in the United States, neighborhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 cases have also been neighborhoods with lower incomes or marginalized communities — often populated by people whose work in grocery stores, hospitals, or public transportation keep them interacting with a high number of people in an age of social distancing. 

In the 23 countries where Concern works, health systems and social-protection mechanisms are already under pressure, leaving the poorest communities with even less access to services, information, preventative measures, and job security. 

Kona*, a Rohingya refugee, washes her hands as a preventative measure to the spread of COVID-19 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: AKM Jakaria / Concern Worldwide (Name changed for security)

3. The pandemic threatens health beyond coronavirus

A country with nearly 70% of its population living below the poverty line, Somalia has just 15 ICU beds for an estimated population of 15 million people. The poorest and most vulnerable people will be least likely to have access to healthcare for screening, prevention, and treatment — and that’s just for COVID-19. In the vast Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the threat of COVID-19 (which is in the area) poses is on top of current outbreaks of cholera, chicken pox and diphtheria, as well as over 174,000 pre-existing respiratory infections. 

Even during a pandemic, other diseases (including those at epidemic levels) continue, alongside the other life events that rely on healthcare systems, including maternal and child healthcare. Even if the mortality rates are kept low for an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in one community, this may come at the expense of other health priorities. 

4. Pandemics hit women and girls at a disproportionately higher rate

Gender disparity is the most common form of inequality around the world and a central barrier to ending poverty globally. As nurses and community volunteers, women make up the majority of front-line healthcare workers, often risking their own safety and health to ensure the safety and health of others. Even in crisis times, women also still serve as the primary caregivers at home for their children and elder family members, and will continue to do that work even if they’re responding to a health emergency. 

Despite all of this, women are most frequently left out of the conversations that decide how communities are managed. This is especially precarious in an outbreak, when access to information (even about treatment or prevention) can be severely constrained. Previous epidemics have shown us just how gendered outbreaks can be, and how a pandemic can widen the gender gap. 

Concern Worldwide National Volunteer, Yesmin teaches Mahir* a community member how to use a protective mask as safety shield from COVID-19 (Photo: AKM Jakaria / Concern Worldwide)
*name changed for security

5. This pandemic may increase conflict, which has a ripple effect

As Concern’s Humanitarian Policy Advisor Dom Hunt recently wrote, a rise in conflict resulting from the economic and political impacts of COVID-19 is highly likely. Large numbers of frightened, urbanized and vulnerable people, connected through social media, can mobilize against oppression very rapidly, or can be manipulated by politicians for their own ends. Isolationist and nationalist politics can pit nation states against each other, especially as some leaders engage in racializing the virus.

What this means beyond the human cost of conflict are the humanitarian costs: Conflict and political unrest and instability create more displacement (thereby straining resources), reduce or even destroy local infrastructure, and leave civilians more vulnerable and less able to depend on a regular income. 

6. Shutdowns mean job losses and depleted resources

This is something we know all too well in the United States: Orders to self-isolate and shelter-in-place are critical to halting the spread of a virus, but they also threaten millions of jobs. This will, or will continue to be, the same experience for the people with whom we work in the world’s most vulnerable communities, many of whom don’t have a safety net or resources to hold them over. Rebounding from this economic setback will take longer and may, with negative coping mechanisms, come at a greater cost. 

Income losses as a result of COVID-19 are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries. With an estimated 55% of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will deeply affect the poorest and most vulnerable communities in particular.

Concern Graduation beneficiaries in front of the shop they have set up as part of the program. They have taken the initiative to establish a hand-washing station in front of the shop and they report soap sales have increased in the last few days as communities receive training on the importance of handwashing to prevent COVID-19 transmission. (Photo: Maud Biton / Concern Worldwide)

7. Shutdowns interrupt education, the one of the keys to ending poverty

Just like conflict or natural disaster, a public health crisis like a pandemic will interrupt education systems. What we know from education’s effects on poverty is that it’s one of the best tools in breaking the cycle, but also that a lack of education can hinder potential later in life. In emergency contexts, it’s more important than ever to give children a sense of stability and routine, while helping them continue to develop intellectually. 

COVID-19 and Poverty: Concern’s Response

The COVID-19 pandemic is poised to have a catastrophic impact on the world’s poorest communities. Drawing on our experience helping to control outbreaks like Ebola, we’re training and equipping teams across 23 countries to respond, and seeking to provide the most vulnerable communities with the resources they need to survive. Every context is different so we’ll respond with what’s needed most, including:

  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to health workers
  • Creating handwashing stations, distributing hygiene supplies, and providing other sanitation services to help prevent the spread
  • Ensuring communities get accurate and life-saving health information through print, radio, and text message campaigns
  • Supporting and training health facility staff
  • Providing cash transfers and livelihood and education support

We’re able to respond with such quickness and agility because of your committed support. It is the essential resource of our work. You can empower even more work by donating to our COVID-19 response.

Get updates on the fight against COVID-19 in the most vulnerable communities