The Impact of COVID-19 on Vulnerable Populations

Sir Angus S. Deaton complains inequalities in society that will grow because of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a public health emergency, but the ripples of its effects extend far beyond the infected individuals. A major global recession — the worst the world has seen since the Great Depression — has emerged as a result of countries being placed on coronavirus lockdown. A crisis of such proportions only serves to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities, putting vulnerable populations at even greater risk for poverty and suffering.

Talks by Nobel Laureates during the Online Science Days covered the harsh consequences of COVID-19 on two very different groups: uneducated adults in the USA and children in developing countries. On Monday afternoon, Sir Angus S. Deaton spoke about how the pandemic is likely to widen mortality and earning gaps between the educated elite and those without a college degree in the U.S. Kailash Satyarthi then gave an impassioned plea on Wednesday afternoon to fellow Laureates and others to prioritize the issues facing children who are in danger of falling into child labor or slavery.

The Great Divider of American Society

Deaton received the 2015 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for his analysis of individual consumption choices and how such data can be used to analyze welfare, poverty and economic development. He began his lecture by explaining how a pandemic exposes and often exaggerates longstanding inequalities between groups. Much like an ocean that recedes at low tide to reveal the bones of old ships, an all-encompassing disaster like COVID-19 causes inequalities in earnings, jobs and education to become starkly visible.

Recently, his research has focused on the decline in health and well-being of the American working class over the last half-century. Together with his colleague Anne Case, Deaton released a book earlier this year on the topic titled Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. What they call “deaths of despair” — death by suicide, overdose or alcoholic liver disease — have risen rapidly in the U.S. since 1995 for individuals who never graduated from university.

“In the United States, that four-year college degree has become a great marker that’s splitting society — not quite down the middle, because only a third of people have a four-year college degree — but it’s the great separation between people doing well and people not doing so well,” he said.

The last year for which full data exists, 2018, recorded approximately 158,000 deaths of despair. That number isn’t expected to drop anytime soon, and in fact, Deaton predicts the pandemic to make things even worse. Although overdoses might see a decline, suicides are likely to increase because of social isolation. Looking at recent trends from March to May, uneducated adults have consistently had much higher levels of unemployment than those with a Bachelor’s degree.

Also, many uneducated adults who haven’t lost their jobs due to lockdown are put at greater risk for COVID-19 infection due to the nature of their working class job, which further widens the mortality gap. Those deemed “essential workers” are often in close contact with other people through jobs in healthcare/eldercare, public transportation, grocery stores, food manufacturing or delivery.

He paints two very different pictures of life during a pandemic in the U.S., depending on one’s level of education.

“People like me, the educated elite, they stay at home, go on working, stay safe, and get paid,” said Deaton. “So this [pandemic] is certainly going to widen the earnings premium for people with a B.A. — currently an astonishing 80% in the U.S. — as well as the mortality differences.”

Protecting Our Children

Satyarthi received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his work against the exploitation of children for labor. In 1980, he founded the organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which has freed thousands of children from slave-like conditions, in his home country of India.

During his talk, he recalled meeting child laborers working in cocoa bean production in Ivory Coast and Ghana. He asked the children, who had bruises on their hands and injuries on their legs, “How do you like chocolate?” Their responses shocked him: “What are you talking about? What is chocolate?”

“They had never seen chocolate in their life. They had never tasted chocolate in their life. They are just producing at the cost of their health and education. This is the case for millions of children in the world,” he said. “That is unfair, that is injustice, and that is one of the biggest violations of human rights.”

Kailash Satyarthi calls for the world´s governments to prioritize the children during the pandemic.

Satyarthi predicts that children from these marginalized and vulnerable sections of society will experience much more serious issues due to COVID-19. A joint report by the International Labour Organization and UNICEF, “COVID-19 and Child Labour: A time of crisis, a time to act”, revealed that the pandemic may cause millions of children to fall into child labor, slavery, trafficking, and prostitution.

Hundreds of millions of people have lost their jobs worldwide and an estimated 44 to 66 million children have fallen or will fall into extreme poverty as a result. These children could be forced into labor to bear the burden of sustaining their families, forgoing the opportunity for an education.

“We are demanding, as Nobel Laureates and concerned citizens, that the governments in their local COVID-19 responses, as well as the international community when they’re allocating funds to mitigate or to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, they should not ignore issues of children and marginalized people,” said Satyarthi.

Spearheaded by Satyarthi, a distinguished group of 88 Nobel Laureates and global leaders issued a joint statement in May calling for the world’s governments to unite and prioritize the world’s children during their lockdowns and in the aftermath. The Laureates and Leaders for Children, founded in 2016, asked them to give the most marginalized children and their families their fair share: 20% of the more than US$5 trillion in COVID-19 emergency support for the poorest 20% of humanity, or US$1 trillion.

He also directly addressed his fellow Nobel Laureates and scholars, urging them to use their platform and status to join the fight against child labor and other atrocities against children.

“Dear friends, raise your voice. Stand for those children who are most vulnerable, most miserable, most marginalized,” said Satyarthi. “They need you more than ever. They need us more than ever, so please speak out for them.“

A third item on the agenda concerning the consequences of the pandemic on societies was the conversation Corona: Developing-Country and International Perspectives with Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael R. Kremer who received the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Meeri Kim

About Meeri Kim

Meeri N. Kim, PhD works as a science writer who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Philly Voice and Oncology Times. She writes for The Washington Post’s blog “To Your Health,” has a column for Philly Voice called “The Science of Everything” and her work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Edible Philly and LivableFuture. In 2013, Meeri received a PhD in physics from the University of Pennsylvania for her work in biomedical optics.

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