Pandemic will hold children back for generations, World Bank warns

Jennifer Rigby
·3-min read
Children will be hit not just by school closures but by rising poverty globally - MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP
Children will be hit not just by school closures but by rising poverty globally - MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP

The impact of the pandemic will be felt for generations to come, the World Bank has warned, because it will prevent people reaching their full potential across the board. 

Even before Covid-19, and despite decades of progress, a child born in a typical country could expect to achieve just 56 per cent of their potential, according to the bank's Human Capital Index 2020. 

The index measures "human capital", gauging the health, skills and knowledge an individual can attain and put to use as a productive member of society if they are completely healthy and fully educated. 

The pandemic's impact on health services, alongside school closures and the wide economic devastation, risks disrupting almost all of the progress made on these measures made in the last decade, hitting not just individuals but entire economies.  

For example, children currently in school might see a drop of 2.5 percentage points on average in their human capital potential, the World Bank predicts - almost exactly the figure gained in the last decade. 

But the impacts are even more wide-reaching, the stark report warns. 

Previous data on crises from the 1918 Spanish Flu to the 2008 economic crash shows that even children in utero will be affected. For example, rising food insecurity, particularly in lower-income countries, leads to low birthweight and stunting, major indicators for long-term developmental and health problems.  

For example, when comparing the wages in 1960 of those who were in utero during the Spanish Flu, they had wages 2.2 per cent lower than comparable groups. 

"These losses build up over time," the report warns, adding that the "indirect consequences of the pandemic may permanently weaken countries' human capital for generations." 

It goes on: "The results shown here are meant to inspire action and show that without remediation, an entire generation could be left behind." 

How the pandemic set global development back '25 years in just 25 weeks'
How the pandemic set global development back '25 years in just 25 weeks'

Mamta Murthi, World Bank Vice-President for Human Development, told The Telegraph that the pandemic was hitting all of the components of human capital. 

"It is not that the Human Capital Index is going to go down by x or y percentage points, it is going to go down because child survival will be impacted, because governments don't have the money to provide public services, because people don't have the money to access them, because kids are probably going to drop out of school, and because of the impact on adult survival," she said.

On Thursday, a new Unicef and Save The Children analysis found that 150 million more children were now living in poverty since the pandemic began - a 15 per cent rise, meaning that approximately 1.2 billion children now live in deprivation. 

And recovery is not going to happen overnight, Ms Murthi added. 

"These are not things that bounce back," she said. "If you are out of school, or undernourished as a child, just because the economy picks up, or you are back at school, or you start getting nourishment, some of these things don't disappear immediately." 

Moreover, the poorest countries are likely to be the worst hit, the report suggests - and at a time when they most need their citizens to be able to achieve to their fullest potential to recover from the crisis. 

"What we have seen from previous crises, not only the 1918 pandemic but other shocks - earthquakes, floods - any shock that interrupts family incomes and access to care has had long-term consequences," said Roberta Gatti, chief economist for human development at the World Bank. 

"We are trying to shine a light on the incredible potential that is being missed because of shortfalls in childhood education, in terms of productivity - and this would really come in handy now that countries need to recover." 

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security