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.
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.
- 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 1 in 5 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.
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.
Even with those improvements — which appear all the more 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.
- 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.
- According to the nonprofit Freedom House, global democracy has been on the decline for years.
What's next: 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 for with a one-time $30 billion increase in the $150 billion dedicated to official development assistance, with the rest coming from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
- 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.