The COVID-19 pandemic threatens hard-won gains in health and education over the past decade, especially in the poorest countries, a new World Bank Group analysis finds. Investments in human capital-the knowledge, skills, and health that people accumulate over their lives-are key to unlocking a child’s potential and to improving economic growth in every country.
The World Bank Group’s 2020 Human Capital Index includes health and education data for 174 countries – covering 98 percent of the world’s population – up to March 2020, providing a pre-pandemic baseline on the health and education of children. The analysis shows that pre-pandemic, most countries had made steady progress in building human capital of children, with the biggest strides made in low-income countries. Despite this progress, and even before the effects of the pandemic, a child born in a typical country could expect to achieve just 56 percent of their potential human capital, relative to a benchmark of complete education and full health.
Twelve Pacific Island Countries were included in this Index. Based on the report, a child born today in the Pacific Islands will on average reach 48 percent of his or her full potential, significantly lower than the global benchmark, with the lowest scoring countries being Solomon Islands and Marshall Islands at 42 percent, and Papua New Guinea at 43 percent. Stronger performing countries in the Pacific include Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga and Palau.
“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,” said 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 impact, most children – more than 1 billion – have been out of school and could lose out, on average, half a year of schooling, adjusted for learning, translating into considerable monetary losses. Data also shows significant disruptions to essential health services for women and children, with many children missing out on crucial vaccinations.
In the Pacific, many countries are responding to multiple crises; with response and recovery efforts continuing following April’s Tropical Cyclone Harold that caused widespread destruction in Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga. The region had also been recovering from one of the worst measles outbreaks recorded, affecting American Samoa, Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga and, most significantly, Samoa – where the outbreak claimed 83 lives, the majority of who were young children.
Furthermore, the ongoing and increased threats of natural disasters and impacts climate change, with the added burden of some of the world’s highest rates of non-communicable diseases and overall low health capacity continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of Pacific Islanders, that has been further exacerbated by the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2020 Human Capital Index also presents a decade-long view of the evolution of human capital outcomes from 2010 through 2020, finding improvements across all regions, where data are available, and across all income levels. These were largely due to improvements 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 the 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.
Today, hard-won human capital gains in many countries are at risk. But countries can do more than just work to recover the lost progress. To protect and extend earlier human capital gains, countries need to expand health service coverage and quality among marginalized communities, boost learning outcomes together with school enrollments, and support vulnerable families with social protection measures adapted to the scale of the COVID-19 crisis.
The World Bank Group is working closely with Pacific countries to develop long-term solutions to protect and invest in people during and after the pandemic:
- This support – to countries including Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, – is focused on addressing the severe economic, social and poverty impacts of COVID-19, by working to support businesses and safeguard jobs, and advance the reforms needed to shorten the time to recovery, and build conditions for broad-based and sustainable growth.
- In PNG, on top of extensive support for COVID-19 emergency response efforts, as well as improvements in rural health services through the IMPACT Health Project, the Bank is also expanding its successful youth employment project into Lae, the industrial hub of PNG, to create more job opportunities for young people, as well as supporting the growth and diversification of PNG’s agriculture sector.
- The Bank is also supporting Pacific countries like Samoa and Tonga, through a regional Pacific Resilience Program, a series of projects to strengthen countries’ resilience to natural disasters and climate change, including building disaster-resilient school buildings and classrooms to ensure children have safe and conducive learning spaces before, during and after disasters.
Ambitious, evidence-driven policy measures in health, education, and social protection can recover lost ground and pave the way for today’s children to surpass the human capital achievements and quality of life of the generations that preceded them. Fully realizing the creative promise embodied in each child has never been more important.
The World Bank Group, one of the largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries, is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response. We are supporting public health interventions, working to ensure the flow of critical supplies and equipment, and helping the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. We will be deploying up to $160 billion in financial support over 15 months to help more than 100 countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery. This includes $50 billion of new IDA resources through grants and highly concessional loans.