Coronavirus vs. inequality

How we’ll pay vastly different costs for the COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes. In just a few months it has spread to almost every continent, infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands.

Markets and societies are in chaos as half of the world is in lockdown.

Yet even when the disease passes, the whole human family will live with its effects for years to come, although we will pay vastly different costs.

Because while coronavirus has respected no national borders, it will continue to discriminate against the most vulnerable.

New UNDP estimates for global human development – as a combined measure of the world’s education, health and living standards – is on course to decline this year for the first time since the concept was developed in 1990. The decline is expected across the majority of countries - rich and poor - in every region.


  • Global per capita income is expected to fall four percent. The World Bank has warned that the virus could push between 40 and 60 million into extreme poverty this year, with sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia hardest hit.
  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that half of working people could lose their jobs within the next few months, and the virus could cost the global economy US$10 trillion.
  • The World Food Programme says 265 million people will face crisis levels of hunger unless direct action is taken.

Exposing weakness

Pandemics expose the weaknesses in every society and widening and persistent inequality was a feature of almost every country, even before COVID-19 broke out.

We are witnessing only the beginning of the virus’s economic and social implications. UNDP’s data dashboards reveals widely disparate levels of ability to prepare and respond.

Developing countries, and those in crisis, will suffer the most, along with the already vulnerable all over the world; those that rely on the informal economy, women, those living with disabilities, refugees, and the displaced, as well as those that suffer from stigma.

  • The ILO says that in India alone, more than 400 million people risk sliding into poverty because they are forced to rely on informal work.
“This pandemic is a health crisis. But not just a health crisis. For vast swathes of the globe, the pandemic will leave deep, deep scars. Without support from the international community, we risk a massive reversal of gains made over the last two decades, and an entire generation lost, if not in lives then in rights, opportunities and dignity.”
– UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner.

Going backwards?


The virus is ruthlessly exposing the gaps between the haves and the have nots, both within and between countries.

It finds a fertile hunting ground when more than half the world’s people lack essential health services and have little or no social protection. About 100 million people are being pushed into extreme poverty because they can’t afford healthcare.

According to UNDP data, developed countries have 55 hospital beds, more than 30 doctors and 81 nurses for every 10,000 people.

For the same number of people in a less developed country there are seven beds, 2.5 doctors and six nurses.

Even basics such as soap and clean water are luxuries for too many.

Lockdowns have also made the digital divide more apparent. Billions of people don't have reliable broadband internet, which limits their ability to work, continue their education, or socialize with loved ones. 

With schools closures and the divides in distance learning, UNDP estimates indicate that 86 per cent of primary school-age children in low human development countries are currently not getting an education, compared to just 20 per cent in countries with very high human development.

With schools closed, UNDP estimates that effective out of school rates could regress to levels not seen since the 1980s – the largest reversal ever – taking us back to a time before the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or even the Millennium Development Goals, and threatening the hard work and progress of the past 30 years.

The unknowns for Africa


Map of Africa

Coronavirus been relatively slow to make its way to Africa, where it could have devastating consequences.

Some 56 percent of Africans live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions; only 34 percent of households have running water, and 71 percent of the workforce relies on informal work.

Rural communities in Kenya, Tanzania and Cabo Verde have already been hard hit by the collapse of tourism. 

"There are so many unknowns for Africa like how COVID-19 will interact with our young population, our hot weather. The governments are trying their best, but they have structural realities that make their response very difficult."
– UNDP Nigeria Resident Representative Mohammed Yahya.

In the worst case scenario, about 20 million jobs and up to 3.3 million lives could be lost. And the United Nations estimates the number of people facing acute food insecurity could double.   

Women on the frontlines


Women are particularly exposed during health crises. They make up the bulk of the first healthcare responders. If they are working from home, they will likely shoulder an even greater burden of housework and childcare, and they are, in too many cases, in greater danger with their partners. Mounting evidence suggests domestic violence is surging worldwide as a result of lockdowns.  

“I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.” – UN Secretary-General António Guterres

UNDP Mexico is working with the government to help citizens realize that coronavirus affects genders very differently and to develop policies that support and protect women and girls.

A rapid response for those most in need


Our focus on inequality and poverty makes UNDP uniquely positioned to help countries to prepare, respond, and fully recover from the pandemic.

We are conducting quick assessments of the social and economic blowback from COVID-19, so governments can ensure urgent recovery measures and longer-term social protection, especially for the disadvantaged and marginalized.

We’ve set up a US$30 million Rapid Response Facility to provide funds within 72 hours, and more than 83 countries have benefitted.


The facility is providing IT support in 20 countries such as Bhutan, Ivory Coast and Yemen so governments can work remotely.

A socio-economic recovery plan covering 162 countries will begin within the next year.

UNDP’s Islamic financing initiatives can help at all stages of the pandemic, initially providing immediate cash payments to prevent families from falling back into poverty.

Our 78 country network of Accelerator Labs in is racing to find answers to the challenges that spring up daily, including in Libya, where conflict continues. 

Pressing `reset`

“What is true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
– Albert Camus

History shows us that plagues can offer tremendous opportunities to break with the status quo.

The coronavirus has emphasized how fragile and destructive our way of life is, not just for the planet, but also for us.

It is essential the response is systemic and integrates the health, economic, social and environmental dimensions.

While we cannot yet fully assess how this crisis will affect the SDGs, UNDP is leading the socio-economic response and will do everything to build on the progress we have already made and ensure we seize this unprecedented opportunity to build a sustainable future for all.