COVID-19 is disrupting more than 70 years of population trends and setting back poverty alleviation by more than a decade.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter
September 2021, Issue 31
by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
This is the third in a four-part series of newsletter articles on the impact of the pandemic on major issues affecting progress toward a more cooperative society. The May article focused on economic concentration and wealth inequality. The July article was about conflict and democracy. The November article will look at the effects of the pandemic on the climate crisis.
This issue analyzes the impact of COVID-19 on global population trends and the quality of life around the world during the past year and a half.
COVID-19 is affecting the world’s population in several major ways. It is lowering the average lifespan, decreasing the birth rate, and slowing current and projected population growth.
Let’s take a look at each of these demographic changes.
The number of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 is expected to exceed 5 million sometime in October. This is probably an undercount, because some countries are attributing coronavirus deaths to other causes.
In the United States, there were almost 350,000 COVID deaths in 2020, and another 350,000 by the end of September or early October 2021. Deaths from the coronavirus are estimated to have reduced the average life expectancy of Americans by one and a half years in 2020, the biggest single-year decline in life expectancy since World War II. This reduction in average life expectancy does not include the effects of the 2021 death toll. COVID deaths among Blacks and Hispanics are substantially higher than among Whites in the U.S.
Life expectancy in many other countries has not been as dramatically affected by the coronavirus as it has been in the United States. ”It is impossible to look at these findings and not see a reflection of the systemic racism in the U.S.,” Leslie Curtis, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, told NPR. “The range of factors that play into this include income inequality, the social safety net, as well as racial inequality and access to health care,” Curtis said.
The global birth rate has been declining each year since 1964. It is projected to drop off somewhat more sharply in the United States in 2021, and to a lesser extent, in a number of other countries as a result of the pandemic. According to a recent article in New Security Beat, “The pandemic has caused many young people to delay major life events, such as marriage. This delay will likely manifest in lower birthrates in the years to come. Likewise, pandemic-related unemployment and financial insecurity, particularly among young people, women, and marginalized groups, may cause further decline.”
The impact of the pandemic on lowered birth rates may continue for several years as the world economy gradually gets back on track.
Long-term demographic trends
In the remainder of the 21st century, the effect of COVID-19 on population change is likely to be a minor, but painful, blip. Longevity very probably will continue to increase gradually after the brief, virus-related, downward spike. The lower birth rate, however, may have a longer lasting, if modest, impact.
Independent of COVID, however, a group of analysts, writing in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, recently projected a more rapid deceleration and then a downturn in world population growth in the remainder of this century:
Our findings suggest that continued trends in female educational attainment and access to contraception will hasten declines in fertility and slow population growth. A sustained TFR [total fertility rate] lower than the replacement level in many countries, including China and India, would have economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical consequences. Policy options to adapt to continued low fertility, while sustaining and enhancing female reproductive health, will be crucial in the years to come.
Primarily due to the effect of this projected lower birth rate, world population (now at 7.8 billion) is expected to peak at about 9.7 billion in 2064, and then decline to around 8.8 billion by 2100. This pattern of population growth and decline is likely to occur unevenly across the world, with some countries experiencing significant reductions in population, and others, especially many low-income countries, continuing to grow through most of the rest of the century. (The author will not go into an in-depth analysis or discuss the policy implications of these trends here, but will address them in future articles and the next edition of The Cooperative Society.)
Quality of life
There has been a recent slowdown in accomplishing the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those directly related to the quality of life of poor people around the world, that began before the coronavirus. The slowdown appears to be the result of reduced commitment by some UN members, an overly ambitious agenda by the UN, and the magnitude of the climate-change crisis overshadowing other SDGs.
The first two sustainable development goals are, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” and “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” This section of the newsletter focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on these two goals of ending poverty and hunger by 2030.
Extreme poverty, defined as, “Living below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day,” rose for the first time in over 20 years in 2020 as approximately 100 million people were pushed back into extreme poverty, bringing the total number of the world’s population in this category to about 730 million. Even though the World Bank recently projected that there will be a decrease of about 20 million people in extreme poverty in 2021, it will take several years to get poverty reduction back on its pre-COVID track. Despite the overall upward trend in 2021, many low-income countries in Africa will continue to experience an increase in extreme poverty this year, and thus suffer through a longer time period before they return to pre-COVID trends of extreme-poverty reduction.
Despite these grim data on COVID-related poverty around the world, there was actually a decrease in poverty in the United States in 2020. A headline in The New York Times recently reported that, “Poverty in U.S. declined last year as government aid made up for lost jobs.” The percentage of people living below the poverty line dropped from 11.8% in 2019 to 9.1% in 2020. This decline in poverty may not continue in the coming years if Congress doesn’t pass several anti-poverty measures this fall.
The COVID-related story for world hunger is much the same as that for poverty. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations:
The number of people in the world affected by hunger continued to increase in 2020 under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. After remaining virtually unchanged from 2014 to 2019, the PoU [prevalence of under nourishment*] increased from 8.4 percent to around 9.9 percent between 2019 and 2020, heightening the challenge of achieving the Zero Hunger target in 2030.
The above percentages mean that about 120 million more people were undernourished in 2020 than in 2019, bringing the world total to about 768 million. More than 80% of undernourished people live in Asia and Africa.
The conclusion that the FAO draws related to world hunger applies equally well to extreme poverty:
With less than a decade to 2030, the world is not on track to ending world hunger and malnutrition; and in the case of world hunger, we are moving in the wrong direction. This report has shown that economic downturns as a consequence of COVID-19 containment measures all over the world have contributed to one of the largest increases in world hunger in decades, which has affected almost all low- and middle-income countries, and can reverse gains made in nutrition. The COVID-19 pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg, more alarmingly, the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities forming in our food systems over recent years as a result of major drivers such as conflict, climate variability and extremes, and economic slowdowns and downturns. These major drivers are increasingly occurring simultaneously in countries, with interactions that seriously undermine food security and nutrition.
The United Nations recently held a world summit on food systems, in which, “. . . more than 150 countries made commitments to transform their food systems, while championing greater participation and equity, especially amongst farmers, women, youth and indigenous groups.”
But the summit was not without controversy. For example, in an article entitled, “The UN summit on food systems took two years to plan. It’s offered nothing to help feed families,” Michael Fakhri, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, made the following comment:
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted what we have known for decades – hunger, malnutrition and famine are not caused by inadequate amounts of food. They are caused by the political failures that restrict people’s access to adequate food.
COVID-19 has significantly contributed to a global reduction in longevity and the birth rate. It has also increased poverty and hunger around the world. The effects of these negative impacts are projected to last for a number of years. In particular, poor people, especially in Africa and Asia, will continue to experience economic hardship and undernourishment well beyond 2021. The optimistic UN goals of ”No poverty” and “Zero hunger” by 2030 will almost certainly not be realized.
It would be a mistake, however, to throw up our hands in despair at these recent setbacks. Since the UN Millennium Development Goals , the predecessors to the sustainable development goals, were first established in 2000, there have been dramatic improvements in the social, health-related, economic, and environmental well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
The recent setbacks related to COVID-19 and other factors mentioned above can be overcome, especially through universal access to coronavirus vaccines, and a recommitment to the 17 sustainable development goals by the international community.
* Prevalence of undernourishment is “an estimate of the proportion of the population whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide the dietary energy levels that are required to maintain a normal active and healthy life.”