COVID-19’s web of impact: rising inequality and intersectional vulnerabilities

This month the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 emergency was over. We reflect on the impacts of the pandemic from an intersectional perspective and the hard lessons learnt – particularly for those living in urban informal settlements.

Tracy Kajumba's picture Andrew Norton's picture
Insight by 
Tracy Kajumba
Andrew Norton
Tracy Kajumba is a principal researcher in IIED’s Climate Change research group; Andrew Norton is a former director of IIED
30 May 2023
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
People standing and walking on a street with informal stalls

Busy street in Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Informal settlement residents, women and informal workers are among those worst affected by COVID-19 (Photo: Ninara, via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

COVID-19 created winners and losers in terms of global wealth gaps, supply of vaccines, access to education, increasing care burdens and disease outcomes. It exacerbated inequality for the poor, especially those living in low- and middle-income countries. It had different implications for different groups and locations. Since disadvantages intersect and compound, communities in poorer nations fared the worst.

Impacts also differed between urban and rural areas. The lockdown amplified poor access to public services and worsened inequalities. Key notable services impacted included restricted energy access, inequalities in shelter (especially in slum areas where isolation was not possible), poor access to digital services and loss of jobs – particularly for those working in the informal sector.

This blog, and the longer working paper on which it draws, explore the web of impacts now and into the future, and highlights policy lessons relevant for building resilience to future shocks.

Intersecting inequalities

We noted that those who fared worst, both from the pandemic’s health implications and government responses, were already substantially disadvantaged by intersecting inequalities.

They were residents of poorer nations, people with insecure employment, those with little in the way of safety nets, or women and girls. They often belonged to ethnic minorities or marginalised communities, they were elderly, or they were young. Many fell into several of these categories.

In addition, there were elements of the pandemic that were specific to urban contexts, and particularly informal settlements.

Urban-specific vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities of livelihoods

COVID-19 had a devastating effect on informal livelihoods during lockdowns. Social protection was minimal, and workers were hit hard by restrictions to working in public spaces – facing lay-offs or under-employment. There were no guaranteed, government-funded insurance schemes. Most people could not earn, and many faced hunger and even starvation as a result.

Vulnerabilities of urban informal settlements

Poor housing and overcrowding made social distancing difficult compared to the middle-income and elite city areas. In many cities, lockdown triggered a mass exodus of male migrant informal workers back to rural areas which added to social and economic pressures there, as well as spreading the virus.

Lack of sanitary facilities in cities was exacerbated – coupled with low levels of access to services.

Vulnerabilities for migrant workers in cities

Migrant groups deprived of incomes suddenly found themselves without housing/shelter or cash for basic needs.

Insecurity of tenure was a specific vulnerability of migrants in the urban informal economy. For example during the lockdowns, women and men left India’s cities in droves because they lost their jobs, homes and faced hunger. In some villages, returning women could not work under the most important social protection programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, because cultural norms expected them to stay at home.

This kept them financially dependent and unable to contribute to household earnings. Intersectionality was a big factor – being a woman and a migrant had negative repercussions for those living in cities – and those forced to return to rural areas.

Exacerbating pre-existing gender inequalities and inequities

Women already had fewer productive assets, as well as limited economic, social and political spaces. They were already experiencing discrimination that restricted access to resources and the pandemic increased their burden.

They took on extra care responsibilities, some were exposed to domestic violence and, due to their higher representation in the informal sector and onerous care including childcare duties, they were more likely to experience falling income than men. It is reported that women were 24% more likely to permanently lose their job than men during the pandemic.

Notable though is the resilience of communities and the key role of community-led mobilisation in responding to the pandemic. This support was particularly important in urban informal settlements.

Key lessons from post-pandemic recovery

The pandemic highlighted inequalities at many levels – from local to global. Rich countries were able to respond with vaccines, formal social protection and cash support measures – and critically could drive economic recovery with fiscal stimulus at scales that low-income countries could not.

While children lost out on quality education in all countries, deficits were far greater in low-income countries. Marginalised groups experienced greater impacts and vulnerabilities at all levels.

  • The impacts of COVID-19 varied by different identities and locations. Urban informal settlements experienced severe challenges, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. Post-recovery responses therefore need to consider location-specific challenges as well as the capabilities to build back fairer
  • In the era of ‘loss and damage from climate change’, there are lessons from responses to the pandemic that could be applied should similar crises arise in the future. The resilience of some communities indicates the importance of community organisations that are representative and trusted by their residents.

Community informal groups supported each other where governments were found wanting. Informal savings groups, many led by women, supported economic and other needs – including food, water provision, and even locally-made soap.

Some organisations facilitated data collection – a challenging task in informal settlements – and forged partnerships with local governments while networking nationally, and globally, and:

  • There is a key lesson here for governments to value local leadership, and to get resources to those community organisations on the frontline responding to local impacts, not only during pandemics, but also during extreme weather and climate events, and other natural disasters.

Resilient recovery strategies

COVID-19 impacts have manifested themselves in different and multidimensional ways that are still evolving, affecting health, economies and social outcomes – but especially the lost years in young people’s education.

The World Bank estimates that some 100 million people have been pushed back into poverty, wiping out much of the gains of the last few years. Without effective post-pandemic recovery strategies the future of cities will remain uncertain, as they still grapple with access to basic services.

The pandemic also paused international ‘wealth convergence’ within and between nations. Other outcomes, including generation-wide lost schooling, will be longer term. Such injustices threaten the global ‘social contract’ needed to tackle issues such as climate change.

COVID-19 disrupted dynamics in cities and impacted whole populations, exacerbating existing inequalities. Recovery measures need to focus on long-term solutions that contribute to the redistribution of wealth, provide better housing and infrastructure, improve access to basic services and include the poor in urban development planning.