5 reasons why the poor are hardest hit by COVID-19

During a pandemic like COVID-19, people living in poverty are disproportionately affected and among the most vulnerable.

For the children and families living in poverty, social distancing and access to medical care can be difficult and sometimes impossible. As a result, during a pandemic like COVID-19, they are disproportionately affected and among the most vulnerable.

Although the current headlines are saturated with pandemic-related news, COVID-19 is not the first or only pandemic to affect the world. In the last 100 years, pandemics like influenza, cholera and HIV/AIDS have ravaged humanity. With each pandemic, people living in poverty are among the most vulnerable—unevenly impacted by the many social, economic and physical consequences of a pandemic.

Here are five ways pandemics affect people living in poverty.

1. Overexposure to risk

For most of us, social distancing measures have added some inconvenience and friction to our everyday lives, but for many people living in poverty around the world, the ability to practice social distancing is a privilege they don’t have.

For millions of people living in precarious conditions and slum communities, social distancing is practically unattainable and staying home is just as risky as a public gathering.

Research shows that people living in lower socioeconomic levels are more likely to catch an infectious disease. During the influenza pandemic, poverty and inequality in wealth and living standards were key factors that exacerbated transmission and mortality rates.

A family in their small home.

Bathati and her family live in a small house made of mud in the slums of Arusha, Tanzania. Their house is a single room with a bed, which Bathati shares with her husband and their three children. Apart from a small cupboard, no other furniture will fit inside. Cooking and washing are all done in communal spaces.

When you consider these living conditions, it’s no wonder that diseases are easily transmitted in areas of extreme poverty, where multiple people are forced to share small communal spaces. During the initial spread of Ebola, people living in slums in Liberia were infected at a rate more than three times that of people living in affluent areas.

People living in poverty also face additional challenges such as accessing clean water and maintaining adequate hygiene. During a pandemic like COVID-19, we know that frequent hand washing is an effective strategy to reduce the spread of harmful diseases. But without access to sanitation and disinfectant products, children and their families have a higher risk of exposure.

2. Limited access to healthcare

During a pandemic, gaps in health care services are more evident than ever. When diseases like COVID-19 affect a community, early treatment and medical attention are crucial. However, for people living in poverty, distance and affordability are challenging barriers. The choice of foregoing a day of work to visit a hospital can be an expensive option.

A child wearing a mask.

The cost of treatment is largely unaffordable for people living in poverty. In the absence of a public health care system, the resulting financial burden of hospitalization is a massive deterrent to seeking medical care. Without disposable cash, many people living in poverty are unable to afford testing and treatment during a pandemic.

Alternatively, people living in poverty may turn to high-interest rate loans to afford medical bills, driving them further into debt and exposing many to exploitation. The effect of a pandemic on communities with high rates of poverty is multi-faceted. Without a safety net, a health risk can reinforce existing inequalities and hardships.


3. Loss of income and increased food insecurity

The world’s poorest are more likely to work in the informal sector and hold unstable jobs with fewer rights and benefits. They are also less likely to have savings to help cover gaps in income.

For those reliant on a daily wage to put food on the table, national lockdowns and social distancing measures are drying up work and incomes, leaving families with an impossible choice: stay at home or feed their children.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 135 million people were living with “acute hunger” at the end of 2019. But now, this number is likely to almost double to 265 million within a year.

Arif Husain, the WFP’s chief economist, says: “COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage.”

For many, COVID-19 is also not the only crisis they are facing. Locusts are swarming in the billions across Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, destroying crops and resulting in what the World Bank describes as a crisis within a crisis. East Africa is the epicentre of the locust crisis, and in countries where Compassion works like Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, the loss of these crops further destabilizes food security and livelihoods. Providing any relief is made harder by COVID-19. It’s yet another way that families and children already experiencing immense vulnerability will be impacted most.

A woman carrying a bag of rice.

In Ethiopia, the outbreak of COVID-19 has left Hamelma increasingly worried about how she will provide for her children and her family.

“Watching people with money buy food items in bulk made me insecure,” she says. “Where would I get that kind of money to store food? This is a difficult time. Even with the money we have at hand, it is becoming difficult to buy food items as the high demand is pushing the price up.”

4. Increased risk for women and children

People living in poverty are mercilessly impacted during a pandemic but among them, women and children face additional vulnerabilities.

Across many communities around the world, women are predominantly responsible for collecting and preparing food for their families. Often, this requires visits to street markets, where their exposure to infectious diseases is increased.

A busy street.

It’s also not unusual for women and children in rural communities to travel long distances to collect water from wells in neighbouring villages. Around the world, women will collectively spend around 200 million hours every day collecting water.

Most families living in poverty lack the resources to stockpile their food and essentials, requiring women and children to frequently visit markets and water wells.

Inside the home, women and girls are also at risk. A pandemic or emergency increases the incidence of gender-based violence. Social distancing and lockdown measures may mean extended periods with a potentially abusive partner or family member. Women and girls are also less able to access support networks and groups.

Women also take on the role of a primary carer for children and the elderly, making it difficult to practice basic social distancing measures.

5. Deepening poverty

While those living in poverty are exposed to greater risks during a pandemic, a pandemic also perpetuates—and may even increase—both short- and long-term poverty levels.

A recent study by the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research has warned that half a billion people could be pushed into poverty as world economies shrink because of COVID-19. This could set global poverty levels back by up to 30 years.

A child walking through a slum community.

This poses a real challenge to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030, as global poverty could increase for the first time since the 1990s.

An increase in those living below the poverty line will put further pressure on already stretched and limited resources. The impact of this will be felt long after the pandemic is over as future generations become trapped in cycles of poverty.

How can you help?

As people living in poverty are hit the hardest by COVID-19, Compassion’s local church partners are working harder than ever to directly respond to these effects.

Our local church partners are:

  • Providing soap, water and hand sanitizer
  • Helping families access healthcare
  • Delivering groceries and essential supplies
  • Remaining vigilant on child protection
  • Ensuring that families make it through this crisis so that we don’t lose momentum in breaking cycles of poverty

Your donation to Compassion’s Disaster Relief Fund will ensure our local church partners have the resources they need to respond to the overwhelming need this crisis is creating around the world.

Give to COVID-19 Response


Versions of this article were originally published by our friends at Compassion UK and Compassion Australia.