Corona has affected the lives of billions of people across the world. This change has come at a time when science and technology is more advanced than at any point in human history. Simultaneously, technological advancement is responsible for the highest level of inequality between low and high developed countries we have ever seen. The impact of the Corona pandemic is going to further widen existing inequalities. Here is how the virus is contributing to a new generation of inequality.
Inequality means more than just an uneven share of wealth and income. As per the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), health, education, and other human-centric aspects are also part of the definition 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 their disposal, whilst having more opportunities and the abilities needed to be successful in life’s valuable domains. Or, as the Indian economist Amartya Sen said:
“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.”
Capabilities are at the heart of human development. There are two sets of capabilities -basic capabilities like early childhood survival or primary education, and enhanced capabilities such as access to quality health care. 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 the standards of living almost everywhere in the world. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has doubled in poor countries. Child mortality rates have halved relative to 1990s levels, and the proportion of children attending school has increased from 56 per cent to 80 per cent 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 among the key elements of human development between low and high development level countries.
People in highly developed countries live 19 years longer
The differences 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 with primary and tertiary education.
In low development countries, only 42.3 per cent of adults received primary level education compared to 93.5 per cent in very high development countries. In the case of tertiary education, only 3.2 per cent 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 to 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.
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 school, and 5.4 million children do not survive their first five years of life.
A new form 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 an increase in life expectancy at birth (5.9 years) which is almost three times more than the high development nations (2.4 years). Similarly, between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of the population with primary education in low development countries rose by 5.3 per cent compared to 3 per cent 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% as compared to 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 to 1.2 years in very high development countries between 2005 and 2015. In the decade between 2007 and 2017 the percentage of the population with tertiary education increased by 1.1 per cent in low development nations compared to 7.1 per cent 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 low developed nations. While in very high development nations 12.3 per 100 registered. 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 the advances of the 21st century, as the world experiences a technological revolution, might not be accessible in low developed nations as they are in high developed nations.
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 the low human development countries, 17 per cent of children died before the age of 20 compared to only 1 per cent of children in high development countries. 80 per cent of children are not in higher education as compared to just 44 per cent in high development countries.
Corona widens inequality
The disruption caused by Corona is vast and beyond calculation. Non-availability of any scientifically approved medicine and the nature of the exponential spreading of Corona has forced governments and concerned authorities across the world to weaponize physical distancing via lock down 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 order migration from industrial centric cities towards villages among many other challenges, all changes have disturbed what used to be normality and a line has been drawn bolder than ever between the haves and have nots. After this invincible Corona experience, a so-called new normality is going to contribute toward building a new generation of inequalities across the world.
Note: The data used has been taken from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).