May 9, 2020 - Health

How the coronavirus could throw global progress in reverse

Illustration of an upward trending arrow with the Earth teetering on the edge.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From rising poverty rates to worsening hunger to renewed conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to put a halt to decades of remarkable progress for the world's population.

The big picture: The story of humanity in the postwar era and even further back is largely one of success, of longer lives, lessened poverty, and greater freedom. But the unprecedented shock of the coronavirus could change much of that — unless the world's governments act quickly to protect the most vulnerable.

The pandemic threatens to erase much of the world's recent progress — or worse.

  • While Americans will suffer tremendously, the hardest-hit victims are likely to be women in the developing world who just emerged from poverty thanks to a mix of smarter aid and economic globalization.
  • "These stories, of women entering the workplace and bringing their families out of poverty, of programs lifting the trajectories of families, those stories will be easy to destroy," Abhijit Banerjee, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times recently.

Driving the news: Economic data released on May 8 showed the U.S. shed a record 20.5 million jobs in April, resulting in an unemployment rate of 14.7% — the worst since the Great Depression. And those figures don't account for millions more Americans out of work but unable to look for jobs because of the lockdown.

  • As bad as those numbers are — and they are very, very bad — the situation is far worse for much of the world's population, especially those in developing countries who had just begun to emerge from extreme poverty.
  • According to the International Labor Organization, 1.6 billion workers in the informal employment sector are in danger of losing their livelihoods because of the pandemic.

While nearly one in five young children in the U.S. are reportedly food insecure — a rate three times as high as the worst figures during the Great Recession — the UN warns the number of starving people worldwide could double this year to some 265 million.

  • For the first time since 1998, the World Bank forecasts global poverty rates will rise. By the end of the year, half a billion people could be pushed into destitution because of the pandemic.

Background: This economic and human catastrophe comes after decades that saw life get better and better for most of the people in most of the world.

  • A 2013 survey found 67% of Americans thought global poverty was on the rise, even though the share of the world's population living on less than $1.90 a day fell from 44% in 1980 to 9.6% in 2015.
  • The percentage of the world's population defined as undernourished fell from 19% in 1990 to 11% in 2014.
  • Between 2008 and 2013, inequality on a global level dropped for the first time since the industrial revolution, driven largely by the rise out of poverty of hundreds of millions of people in South Asia and China.
  • Despite the occasional spike, the absolute number of people killed in war and conflict has been declining since 1946. Average global life expectancy has increased over the same period from around 50 years to 71 years.

Even with those improvements — which appear all the remarkable if you extend the historical scale to before the industrial revolution, when an estimated 94% of the world was poor — there were signs that global progress might be set to stall.

  • Human-made climate change went from largely nonexistent in the mid-20th century to an existential threat that could cost the global economy nearly $8 trillion by 2050. And despite international deals like the Paris Agreement, the world is falling far short of curbing warming.
  • Even before the pandemic, income inequality in the U.S. was at its highest level since the government began tracking it in 1967. And U.S. life expectancy dropped in 2019 for the third year in a row, driven by poor overall health and deaths of despair.
  • According to the nonprofit Freedom House, global democracy has been on the decline for years.

What's next: While G20 countries have committed to spending more than $5 trillion to shield their citizens from the pandemic's economic toll — trillions that may still not be enough — developing nations have far fewer resources to draw upon, despite their enormous need.

  • The UN is urging rich nations to set aside $90 billion to protect the most vulnerable 10% of the world's poorest people. That would be paid in part with a one-year $30 billion increase in the $150 billion dedicated to official development assistance.
  • Reality check: While nations have channeled hundreds of millions in aid to directly fight the coronavirus, finding an additional $30 billion in the midst of a global economic depression is an impossibly tough ask.

The bottom line: The progress the world has seen over the past several decades is nothing short of remarkable. But there is no guarantee that story will continue.

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