From equality to global poverty: the Covid-19 effects on societies and economies

The Covid-19 pandemic is a social and an economic crisis just as much as it is a health one – its repercussions, severe and far-reaching, are being felt across the world.

A teacher wearing a mask speaks to her students in front of the classroom.

One year into the pandemic, almost half of the world’s students were affected by school closures. Millions of girls might not be going back at all. 


Deaan Vivier/Beeld/Gallo Images via Getty Images

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From equality to global poverty: the Covid-19 effects on societies and economies
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From school closures to devastated industries and millions of jobs lost – the social and economic costs of the pandemic are many and varied. Covid-19 is threatening to widen inequalities everywhere, undermine progress on global poverty and clean energy, and more.

The best solution is to stop this damage from happening, through the use of tests, treatments and vaccines everywhere they're needed. This will cost only a fraction of the huge economic loss the pandemic is causing every week.

The pandemic impacts all aspects of society 

To slow the spread of the virus, schools closed across the world. One year into the pandemic, almost half of the world’s students were affected by school closures. Millions of girls in some countries might not be going back at all, putting them at risk of adolescent pregnancy, child marriage and violence.

Chart showing Covid-19 effects on education, climate and poverty.

The effects Covid-19 had on education, climate and poverty in 2020.

Source: Data from the World Bank, market intelligence and the United Nations, ACT-Accelerator Plan and Investment Opportunity presentation and SDG Integration.



Businesses closed too, leading to the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs lost, in terms of working hours, in 2020. Among the worst hit are workers in the informal economy, young people and women. Any economic recovery will likely be uneven, leading to greater inequality in the coming years.

Women have been harder hit economically by the pandemic because they are a large proportion of the workers in sectors severely affected by Covid-19, including accommodation and food services, and in front-line occupations, such as the health and social care sectors. 

With the closures of schools, they have also had to take on more care responsibilities at home. Whether through job losses or school closures, the pandemic threatens to undo decades of progress on gender equality.

Covid-19 has been slowing down progress on clean energy too, at least temporarily, by curbing investments and delaying the expansion of clean energy technologies.

There was some positive climate news: global energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% in 2020, the largest ever decline in global CO2 emissions in history. But that was only a short-term effect of lockdowns, not a sustained change, as the demand for coal, oil and gas returned to almost pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

No epidemic is ever just a health issue in isolation, and Covid-19 has emphasised this on the global stage. We need to be looking at it in terms of an economic issue, a livelihood issue, a social issue and a political issue too.

Juliet Bedford, Anthrologica


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It’s impacting progress on tackling global poverty 

Since March 2020, governments have spent staggering amounts on fiscal support – and deficits are the highest they’ve been since World War II.

Chart showing percent change in number of people below the poverty line of $1.90 for the last three years.

The effects are felt unevenly across societies.

The Wellcome Global Monitor 2020: Covid-19 report, the largest study of its kind, found that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on low-income countries and people with low incomes across all countries. Almost half (45%) of workers in low and lower-middle-income countries lost a job or business due to the pandemic, compared to just 10% of people in high-income countries.

While no economy is left untouched, lower- and middle-income countries are worst affected because they have weak defences against economic shocks and tend to depend more on a few sectors, such as commodities and tourism. 

Millions of people have already fallen below the poverty line. In just a few months of Covid-19, extreme poverty went up for the first time in 20 years.

Wealthy countries had the means to intervene early to protect people and businesses. They pumped $9.8 trillion into their economies – the biggest chunk of the total of $11.7 trillion spent globally in 2020 – to cope with the fallout from the pandemic. But low- and middle-income countries have not been able to do the same.

A report by Oxfam reviewed the government measures to support people through the pandemic in 126 low- and middle-income countries, including numerous kinds of benefits for those affected, and found that 97% of the support provided was inadequate to meet basic needs.

Graphic showing that wealthy countries spent on average $695 per person, while low- and middle-income countries spent between $4 and $28 per person for cash support during 2020.

Wealthy countries spent on average $695 per person, while low- and middle-income countries spent between $4 and $28 per person for cash support during 2020.

Source: Shelter from the storm report, Oxfam 2020



Until we get the virus defeated everywhere, the world economy will not return to normal.

Erik Berglof, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

The investment needed is less than what it is costing the economy 

Without tangible solutions to stop the virus from spreading and treat those who fall ill, the pandemic will continue to steal lives and livelihoods.

The greatest investment we could make now is in the research, development and fair distribution of tests, vaccines and treatments.

Securing this funding now will prove to be the wisest investment humanity has ever made.

Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome

The good news is that the investment needed is small compared to what the world will keep losing if we don’t act. For every month’s delay in expanding access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments equitably around the world, the world is losing 120,000 lives and $460 billion in economic output, the International Monetary Fund estimates. 

The investment needed relies on countries and international organisations showing leadership, pooling resources together and acknowledging that this crisis can only be overcome if we act together.

This article was first published in September 2020.