Pandemic threatens human capital gains of the past decade

The COVID-19 pandemic scares hard-won earnings in health and education over the past decade, especially in the poorest nations, a new World Bank Group report finds. Investments in human capital—the knowledge, skills, and health that people collect over their lives—are key to opening a child’s potential and improving economic growth in every nation.

The World Bank Group’s 2020 Human Capital Index covers health and education data for 174 nations – covering 98% of the world’s inhabitants – up to March 2020, giving a pre-pandemic baseline on the health and education of children. The analysis confirms that pre-pandemic, most nations had made constant progress in building the human capital of children, with the biggest strides made in low-income nations. Notwithstanding this development, and even before the effects of the pandemic, a child born in a typical nation could assume to achieve just 56% of their likely human capital, related to a benchmark of complete education and full health.

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“The pandemic puts at risk the decade’s progress in building human capital, including the improvements in health, survival rates, school enrollment, and reduced stunting. The economic impact of the pandemic has been particularly deep for women and for the most disadvantaged families, leaving many vulnerable to food insecurity and poverty,” stated World Bank Group President David Malpass. “Protecting and investing in people is vital as countries work to lay the foundation for sustainable, inclusive recoveries, and future growth.”

Due to the pandemic’s influence, more than 1 billion children have been out of school and could lose out, on average, half a year of schooling, arranged for learning, translating into considerable monetary losses. Data also explains significant disruptions to essential health services for women and children, with many children missing out on crucial vaccinations.

The 2020 Human Capital Index additionally presents a decade-long view of the evolution of human capital outcomes from 2010 through 2020, seeing improvements across all regions, where data are available, and overall income levels. These were largely due to changes in health, reflected in better child and adult survival rates and reduced stunting, as well as an increase in school enrollment. This progress is now at risk due to global pandemic.

The analysis finds that human capital outcomes for girls are on average higher than for boys. However, this has not translated into comparable opportunities to use human capital in the labor market: on average, employment rates are 20 percentage points lower for women than for men, with a wider gap in many countries and regions. Moreover, the pandemic is exacerbating risks of gender-based violence, child marriage, and adolescent pregnancy, all of which further reduce opportunities for learning and empowerment for women and girls.

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