The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the world’s most vulnerable populations through lost lives, health, jobs, incomes, assets, and education. The World Bank’s High-Frequency Phone Surveys (HFPS) help identify the main fault lines along which the pandemic’s unequal impacts are emerging in developing countries (country-level indicators produced with this data are shown in an interactive dashboard). The pandemic intensified inequalities between higher-income and lower-income countries, men and women, and workers from different socioeconomic groups. While the initial impacts of the pandemic reinforced preexisting inequalities, the world must now turn its attention to the risks of an uneven economic recovery and the long-term threat it poses to social mobility and inequality.

Early insights (using harmonized multicountry HFPS data) from April-June 2020 suggested extremely large impacts on incomes, jobs, food security, and children’s education, associated with the stringency of policy measures undertaken during the pandemic. On average, more than one-third of those working before COVID-19 across 52 countries stopped working; more than 60 percent of households reported income losses across 30 countries. A pattern of widening gaps between rich and poor countries emerged early on: Income losses, disruptions to children’s education, and food insecurity were much more common among households in poorer countries. In addition, emergency social transfers were inadequate to offset impacts on income in low-income countries. For example, per capita social protection spending on COVID-19-related measures was $4 on average from March 2020 to May 2021 in low-income countries, compared to nearly $850 per capita in high-income countries.

Within developing countries, the economic impacts seemed to reinforce preexisting inequality patterns. Large segments of the population who were at a disadvantage in the labor market before the shock—women, younger workers, and workers with less education—were much more likely to lose their jobs in the first three months of the pandemic (Figure 1). Income losses were also more likely among respondents with no college education and households with self-employed or casual workers. Access to learning while schools were closed was more severely limited for children in larger households and in households where the survey respondent was less educated. There were some exceptions to these patterns. For example, in some low-income countries, educated workers were more likely to stop working, as they tended to be employed in the urban service sector that was strongly affected by the pandemic.

Read the full article about an equitable economic recovery by Ambar Narayan, Alexandru Cojocaru, Miriam Muller, and David Newhouse at Brookings.