COVID-19 and the human development crisis: what have we learnt?

By Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office and lead author of the Human Development Report and Mario Pezzini, Director of the OECD Development Centre and special adviser to the OECD Secretary-General on development


This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


To say COVID-19 is unprecedented is no cliché. Its simultaneous impact on multiple development areas – education, health and the economy – sets it apart. As does its geographic reach: the pandemic, and its spillover, have touched every country.

Of course, the world has seen many crises over the past 30 years, including health crises from HIV/AIDS to Ebola, and economic crises such as the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09. Each has hit human development, devastating the lives of millions. But overall the world has still made development gains year on year. What distinguishes COVID-19 is the triple hit to health, income and education, fundamental building blocks of human development. And as a result the global human development index is on course to decline this year for the first time since the concept was introduced in 1990 – something that can still be avoided or at least mitigated with strong policy responses.

Today, with large portions of many economies at a standstill, and millions out of school, the impact on human development is huge. But with concerted effort much of that damage can be turned around. It will however require a change in global co-operation that promotes more coordination among countries and collective action in multiple dimensions of development. Countries have to learn from each other, working together on an equal footing, to fight inequalities from access to quality healthcare to broadband Internet.

When we think about the overall impacts of the pandemic, we can consider a nation’s vulnerability and its resilience. That is, how likely a country is to fall victim to the disease (vulnerability), and how deep are the impacts (resilience). UNDP recently released two dashboards shedding light on these areas.

Scientists are still racing to understand the factors that drive or hinder the spread of COVID-19 and what makes any one country more vulnerable than another. There are however, a number of factors which typically render nations more vulnerable to crises. There are also a set of factors that determine a nation’s resilience to the broader socio-economic fallout from national shutdowns, closed borders and more. And these are linked to existing inequalities.

On the health side, hospital beds, access to ventilators and protective gear have proved vital to keeping people alive. And an ability to test widely for the disease seems critical to progress as will – hopefully one day – access to a vaccine. The high human development countries have major advantages here.

Turning to education, while many schools have closed, not all pupils are faring equally. UNDP estimates suggest that 86 percent of children in primary education are not getting an education in low human development countries, compared to just 20 percent in countries with very high human development. Until it is safe for schools to reopen, children out of school will not be learning unless they can access classes remotely – over the radio, TV or the internet.

Millions of people are no longer working. But in countries with a strong public safety net those newly unemployed workers will at least be receiving some income. In developing countries, informal economy workers represent about 70% of the workforce. Only 29 percent of the world has comprehensive social protection coverage, with underinvestment particularly acute in Africa, Asia and the Arab States.

And so existing inequalities between countries – in health or technology or social security – will play an important role in determining the impact of the crisis and recovery times. Those countries, communities and groups that were already lagging behind will be particularly affected by the fallout from COVID-19. This in turn will deepen existing inequalities.

The crisis is a reminder that inequalities in one particular area can have far reaching and even unexpected impacts. And yet action is affordable: for instance, closing the gap in Internet access in low- and middle-income countries for instance is estimated to cost only 1 percent of the extraordinary fiscal support packages the world has so far committed to respond to COVID-19.

The global community needs to work towards eradicating these inequalities without which a recovery from the COVID-19 crisis won’t be sustainable. And while countries have scrambled to respond to the crisis in its immediate phase, the international response going forward must combine economic, environmental and social progress, and promote societies that leave no one behind. We cannot go back to the status quo before the crisis, when global unrest and citizen discontent were already the norm.

What have we learnt from the crisis so far?

  1. Controlling the spread of the virus is a global public good. Preventing the spread of the virus, by addressing the crisis and building resilience, is undoubtedly in the interest of all in both developed and developing countries and this is the case for all communicable diseases.
  2. Coordination across different policy communities in the context of a multidimensional crisis, with health, economic and social aspects, is crucial. Moreover, the crisis affects the local, national and the global; effective recovery plans have to factor in the growing interdependence among regions and countries, connecting global challenges to national development strategies.
  3. Multidirectional learning is fundamental. Different starting points before the crisis have determined countries’ capacity and resilience in fighting COVID-19 and its aftermath. Policy exchange regardless of countries’ development status has been insufficient so far, exchanging on shared policy issues in the future will be indispensable.

How do we put these lessons to use going forward as we strive to build back better and reduce inequalities?

  1. Investments in global public goods like communicable disease control demand appropriate financing frameworks. Pandemics know no borders. National resources  pooled and coordinated at the global level, as the response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic shows, can be effective in making sure they go where they are needed the most, underpinned by processes that ensure transparency and accountability. Equitable access to therapeutics and vaccines are also critical.
  2. Promoting mutual learning on the recovery. We must learn lessons from countries at all levels of development, for better and more innovative policies and forms of co-operation. They must combine different skills and capacities, focusing on building resilience and reducing inequalities among countries. The recovery must be embedded in multidisciplinary national development strategies that reflect the interdependency between the local and the international. Something that has been made strikingly clear by this crisis.
  3. Beyond communicable diseases, approaches to improve the provision of global public goods call for collectively coordinated action and investment. This is also the case for a sustainable recovery, co-designed by developed and developing countries, involving the private sector and other relevant actors. Only a truly global effort can address shared global challenges like pandemics and climate change.

The extraordinary scale and speed of the reaction to the pandemic over the past three months offers a glimmer of hope of how significantly humanity can act when it is convinced of the need. But we need to scale and adapt, and rebuild trust at the national and global levels, hand-in-hand with the recovery. It is in our hands to reverse the human development impacts of COVID-19. There is also room for hope: when the world is back on the road to recovery, we may equally be able to collectively redress inequalities and address climate change.