Human development challenge: Need to address new forms of inequalities created by Covid-19

Covid-19 and the human development crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the age-old practices in education, healthcare, and other essential services, resulting in a human development crisis.

By Shashank Vikram Pratap Singh

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) created a human centric indicator known as Human Development Index thirty years ago to measure development beyond the traditional yardstick of gross domestic product (GDP). Since then, it is being used in development discourse among policy makers across the world. The outcome of such efforts is quite evident in the considerable progress of humanity measured in terms of standard of living, health and education. Out of these progressions, the world is facing a new kind of challenge i.e., inequalities within capabilities. Amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the existing inequalities will be more pronounced.

Covid-19 has affected the lives of billions of people across the world. This has come at a time when technological advancements are creating the highest levels of inequality — between developed and less developed countries as well as among citizens within national boundaries.

Inequality means more than just uneven sharing of wealth and income. As per the UNDP definition, health, education, and other human-centric aspects are also part of inequality. Human life has many dimensions and cannot be defined solely by resources and money. An individual would arguably be better off having fewer resources at his/her disposal. “We could be well off without being well, we could be well without being able to lead the life we wanted, we could have got the life we wanted without being happy,” economist Amartya Sen famously said.

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Inequalities within capabilities

Capabilities are at the heart of human development. There are two sets of capabilities — basic capabilities such as early childhood survival or primary education, and enhanced capabilities such as access to quality healthcare. Having access to both of these sets of capabilities is important in equal measures. They are necessary for increasing and achieving high human development, a good state of being, and overall human wellbeing.

In the 21st century, we have witnessed an improvement in standard of living almost everywhere in the world. Gross domestic product (GDP) has doubled in poor countries. Child mortality rates have halved compared with 1990s levels, and the proportion of children attending school has increased from 56% to 80% globally. The number of people experiencing low human development fell from 3 billion to 926 million worldwide. People experiencing high and very high human development rose from 1.3 billion to 3.8 billion across the globe.

Despite these achievements, there are still considerable differences in the key elements of human development between development and less developed countries. The difference in life expectancy at birth between the low (59.4 years) and very high (78.4) development level countries is 19 years. Such differences in expected longevity persist at every age. At the age of 70, the life expectancy of low human development countries is 9.8 years. This is compared to 14.6 years in very high human development countries. This disparity is mirrored in primary and tertiary education.

In low development countries, only 42.3% of adults received primary level education compared to 93.5% in very high development countries. In the case of tertiary education, only 3.2% of adults have tertiary education compared to 28.6% per cent in high development countries.

There are also vast inequalities between high and low development countries with regard to access to technology. Technological inequality is measured through mobile cellular and fixed-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. There are only 67 mobile phone subscribers per 100 in low human development counties compared with 131.6 in very high human development countries. In the case of fixed-broadband subscriptions, less than one subscription (0.80) in low development countries compared to 28.3 in very high development countries.

At least 600 million people are still living in extreme income poverty. That number even increases to 1.3 billion when measured through Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Around 262 million children are out of primary or secondary schools, and 5.4 million children do not survive their first five years of life.

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New forms of inequality

Levels of inequality with regard to basic capabilities are shrinking across countries among all levels of development. From 2005 to 2015, low human development countries registered 5.9 years increase in life expectancy at birth compared with high development nations (2.4 years). Similarly, between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of population with primary education in low development countries rose by 5.3% compared with 3% in very high human development countries. During the same period, the growth in mobile-cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in low human development countries was 49.3% compared with 26.1% in very high development countries.

Despite these improvements, inequalities in enhanced capabilities are rising. A new generation of inequality is emerging. Life expectancy at age 70 increased by only 0.50 years in low developed nations compared with 1.2 years in very high development countries between 2005 and 2015. Between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of population with tertiary education increased by 1.1% in low development nations compared with 7.1% in very high development nations. This shows that very high development nations are growing more than six times faster than low development countries with regard to education.

This trend is echoed once more by fixed broadband subscription rates. From 2007 to 2017, 0.80 out of every 100 inhabitants registered with a provider in less developed nations. While in very high development nations 12.3 per 100 registered for the service. This means that very high development countries are growing 15 times faster than low development countries in this specific area.

It is clear that there is increased convergence in terms of basic capabilities, but this is matched by increased divergence in the new set of indicators termed as enhanced capabilities. And this divergence is dramatic. The new opportunities provided by technological advances in the 21st century might not be accessible in less developed nations as they are in highly developed nations.

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Power of human development

In its very first report, the UNDP defined human development as “the process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical of these wide-ranging choices is to live a long and healthy life, to be educated, and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living. Additional choices include political freedom, guaranteed human rights, and personal self-respect”.

Precisely 30 years after its first report, the UNDP illustrated the power of human development using fascinating data. They compared children born in the year 2000 in high human development nations to children born in low development countries in the same year. After 20 years the following changes have been estimated by UNDP in the differing nations.

In low human development countries, 17% of children died before the age of 20 compared with only 1% in high development countries. About 80% children are not in higher education in less developed countries compared with just 44% in highly developed countries.

Covid-19 widens inequalities

The disruption caused by Covid-19 is vast and beyond calculation. Non-availability of any scientifically approved medicine and the nature of the exponential spreading of the pandemic have forced governments and concerned authorities across the world to weaponise physical distancing via lockdowns to combat the virus. This causes a new set of socioeconomic issues.

Be it the teaching-learning process being moved online, attempting to accumulate essential commodities, or reverse migration from industrial centres to villages, all changes have disturbed what used to be normalcy and a line has been drawn bolder than ever between the haves and have nots. After the Covid-19 pandemic, a new normal has emerged, contributing towards building a new generation of inequalities across the world.

(Shashank Vikram Pratap Singh is Assistant Professor, Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi.)

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