The COVID-19 pandemic has already created a disadvantaged generation

Newborns, those about to be born and children under five will be the worst victims in terms of long-term impacts on growth and development

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 25 September 2020
The pandemic has already created a disadvantaged generation. Photo: Flickr

We are into the tenth month of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and yet to fully comprehend its many impacts on our lives. What we are sure about are the immediate impacts like on our health and economy as we presently endure those.

But in a crisis like never before that has impacted every aspect of our existence, one tends to look at the future with more uncertainty. This leads to the not- so-often-asked question: How will the new generation that has taken birth during the pandemic, remember it?

We can call them the pandemic generation; and they include children who are under five years of age. The importance of this generation comes from the fact that by 2040, they will account for around roughly 46 per cent of the workforce in a country like India.

Notwithstanding the development inequality that is pervasive in our world, the pandemic generation is born in a world healthier and wealthier than ever. Unlike us, the new generation just born wouldn’t have the memory of what it took us to endure a pandemic of this scale.

Does this mean they would be a normal generation, reading about the pandemic in history textbooks? Like us, who read about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 in textbooks.

Before attempting an answer, here are a few historical reminders of past pandemics or similar crises. Scientists and researchers find that children born or in utero during the 1918 pandemic, had less educational attainment as adults and were poor as well.

Expectant mothers during the 2008 economic recession gave birth to underweight infants, particularly those from poor families. In 1998, El Niño caused devastating floods in Ecuador. Children born during this period were underweight and stunting continued for 5-7 years. The common factor in all these after effects of crisis-like events is the dipping economic status leading to various effects.

So, the answer to the above question is a scary one. And we have preliminary indicators that the pandemic generation of this century wouldn’t be different than the past ones.

The recently released Human Capital Index (HCI) of the world, prepared by the World Bank, says that the pandemic generation would be the worst victim of it. The adult generation of 2040 would be a stunted one; would be left behind in terms of human capital and might well be the toughest development challenge for the world.

HCI measures “the human capital that a child born today can expect to attain by her 18th birthday”. This includes the health and education entitlements of a newborn now and how it would impact his / her future productivity.

COVID-19 would not impact the health of a child or a pregnant mother like pandemics of the past. But, the economic impacts of the pandemic would devastate this generation — including children in utero — the most for the simple reason that a poor household would not be spending much on health, food and education.

There would be higher child mortality and also stunting among those who survived. Besides, millions of children and pregnant mothers have been kept away from essential health services due to the disruption in the systems.

According to the HCI estimates, child mortality will increase by 45 per cent in 118 low-income and middle-income countries. Analysis shows that a 10 per cent increase in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita reduces infant mortality by 4.5 per cent.

Looking at various estimates, most countries are going to experience higher GDP loss than this due to the pandemic. This indicates what the impact would be on infant mortality.

This is at a time when the world has much to catch up with reducing malnutrition and poverty. The new index clearly brings out the fact that even if the pandemic is a temporary shock, it would still be leaving behind crippling impacts on children of the new generation.

It is time the world gets serious about this generation that has just taken birth. We can’t add on to our chronically deprived generations already enduring a development deficit.

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