A new report estimates that during 2020, the number of people living in poverty could increase by 420–580 million, not only hindering progress on the SDGs, but causing progress to reverse significantly. To minimise the impact, a further report calls for unified, multi-stakeholder action across global public and private sectors to bring innovation to the frontline.

The speed and scale of the spread of the coronavirus, the severity of cases and the societal and economic disruption has already been unprecedented for modern times, yet as it spreads across less developed nations, its effects could deepen. Indeed a new report published by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) warns that the economic fallout from the pandemic could increase global poverty by as much as half a billion people, or 8% of the total population.

The report models the effect a low (5%), medium (10%) or large (20%) contraction of the global economy would have on the number of people that would be forced to live under international poverty lines. The research shows that under the most extreme scenario of a 20% income or consumption contraction, the number of people living in poverty could increase by 420–580 million, relative to the latest official recorded figures for 2018.

Ending Poverty’ by 2030 is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – yet the pandemic is likely to severely hinder the achievement of this goal and instead, global poverty could actually increase for the first time in thirty years, representing a reversal of a decade of progress in global work to reduce poverty. As Andy Sumner, Professor of International Development at King’s College London and a Senior Non-Resident Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER, explains: “We were surprised at the sheer scale of the potential poverty tsunami that could follow COVID-19 in developing countries. Our findings point towards the importance of a dramatic expansion of social safety nets in developing countries as soon as possible and - more broadly - much greater attention to the impact of COVID in developing countries and what the international community can do to help”.

Indeed, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on 30 household surveys from Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia shows that a global gross domestic product (GDP) slowdown of 1 percentage point would increase poverty (at the lower World Bank poverty line of US$1.90 per day) by between 14–22 million people and the greatest impact will be in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where up to half of the new poor will live.

The study serves as a stark warning that it is the world’s most vulnerable communities that are likely to suffer most from the effect of the pandemic with many calling for a co-ordinated global response to minimise the impact. “The UNU-WIDER study demonstrates that the coronavirus is putting the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, and in particular, the SDGs on no poverty and zero hunger, under considerable threat” says Kunal Sen, Director of UNU-WIDER. “The need of the hour is to bring together development agencies, national governments, civil society and the private sector in a global effort to protect the livelihoods and lives of the poorest of the poor in the Global South.”

Supporting this demand, a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) that explains how COVID-19 is adversely affecting the progress of each of the SDGs, calls for a “large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response amounting to at least 10 per cent of global GDP” urging that “Whole societies must come together. Every country must step up with public, private and civic sectors collaborating from the outset.”

Whilst the scale of collaboration and co-operation demanded is unprecedented, there are already many examples of previously unimaginable partnerships that have been formed in order to better fight the virus. For example, pharmaceutical companies are working with governments to increase testing capability, while manufacturers are offering to shift or add new production lines to manufacture masks and ventilators, and technology companies are providing crucial digital tools to overcome social isolation, promote social cohesion and raise awareness on health and safety guidelines to address the pandemic.

In addition, the UNDESA report explains that public-private partnerships are key to mobilising the potential of innovation to close information gaps and provide the investment and technical support in analytics capacity needed to protect the vulnerable communities most at risk from the virus. The report highlights that Private sector innovations such as big data and artificial intelligence must be harnessed to create digital public goods in the form of actionable real-time and predictive insights to help identify new outbreaks, determine where healthcare and other public services are overloaded, track and counter the spread of xenophobia and disinformation, measure cross-sectoral impacts of the crisis on vulnerable populations in addition to targeting risk communications, financial assistance, and policy interventions. Consequently, ensuring existing cutting-edge technology is made available If cross-industry private sector partnerships could make a major difference in how vulnerable communities emerge from the pandemic.

The coronavirus is disrupting every country, causing physical and economic pain on an international scale. Whilst the effects are global, this disease is not a ‘great leveller’ - it is in fact, the opposite -  exacerbating social inequality. As a result, the pandemic will hit vulnerable communities twice as they suffer from the pandemic and then again with more deaths from secondary impacts such as poverty, hunger, diseases, and violence exacerbated by the pandemic, than the virus itself. “We’re going to see significant impacts on malnutrition rates, and we’re seeing all sorts of secondary impacts. For example, there’s a polio outbreak in Niger because they stopped vaccinating,” explains Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International.

As David Beasley, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Program warns; “I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe,. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.”

Whilst the world’s scientists work on a vaccine, the public and private sectors of every government in the world must consider how they can come together to collaborate and support a global effort to protect the most vulnerable communities – both at home and abroad. The emergence of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), and all the transformative innovations it has brought must be urgently adapted and scaled to ensure that on every level, we fight this disease with all we have.

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