Are Covid Lockdowns Behind the Rise in Extreme Poverty in the Global South?

Damaging consequences: evidence suggests that Covid lockdowns have driven a rise in poverty across the Global South. Image: Mayordeeliteman / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

In the context of a huge increase in global poverty since 2020 which has driven political convulsions most especially in low-income countries, a closer look at pandemic policies is vital to safeguard against future missteps. Could pandemic poverty have been avoided, and if so, how?

The Covid Inquiry has been set up by the UK government to assess how the pandemic response unfolded, and what can be learnt for the future. However, the memory of Inquiry participants is not necessarily the best place to start. Giving evidence in November 2023, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Chris Whitty, declared that achieving ‘herd immunity’ was ‘a clearly ridiculous goal of policy’, and should have ‘only been talked about in the context of vaccines’. However, reports from March 2023 detailing former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages reveal that Whitty had written to Hancock in February 2020 that Covid vaccines could not be fast-tracked – and would therefore require 3–5 years to develop – because the virus had a ‘low mortality rate’.

Memory is notoriously unreliable. Instead of focusing on the inevitable inconsistencies, analysts should look at the evolution of Covid policy. The evidence clearly suggests that Covid lockdown policies have shaped the rise of poverty since 2020, particularly in the Global South. Avoiding poverty and associated political crises should be pivotal to future pandemic policies.

The UN must therefore rethink its presentation of Covid-related poverty. In November 2023, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) stated that ‘50 million more people in Africa fell into extreme poverty as a result of Covid’. This claim is not, however, borne out by Covid data. The African continent has registered fewer than 260,000 Covid deaths in three-and-a-half years, and over 100,000 have been in South Africa alone. On a continent where around 12 million people die every year, this is a 0.75% increase over 3 years; removing South Africa from the equation, this becomes a 0.25% increase. Even accounting for missed diagnoses, mortality impacts have been very low – which, given Africa’s population pyramid, was predicted by many in March 2020.

So how can this negligible impact have ‘caused’ 50 million people to fall into extreme poverty, as stated by the UNDP? Policymakers need to assess other explanations for this catastrophe: principal among them is the impact of Covid lockdowns on the Global South, the harms of which were warned of by many as the pandemic began.

Covid Lockdowns and the Poverty Crisis in the Global South

The UNDP itself predicted in late March 2020 that up to half of the jobs in Africa could be lost following the Covid-19 outbreak. This was not only because of the virus. In April 2020, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) noted that ‘a consensus is emerging that lockdowns are not suitable or sustainable for much of sub-Saharan Africa’. This supported an open letter from leading African intellectuals which stated that ‘many African countries have imposed a brutal lockdown … If such containment measures have met the agreement of middle classes shielded from crowded living conditions with some having the possibility to work from home, they have proved punitive and disruptive for those whose survival depends on informal activities’.

According to the World Food Programme, globally 200 million more people are facing acute levels of food insecurity than before the Covid-19 pandemic

How, then, may Covid lockdowns have precipitated the extreme poverty now being seen? A key factor is the impact lockdowns had on the informal sector and on food security. Evidence from Angola and The Gambia has shown how transport and movement restrictions meant a growing season was lost, and a whole harvest failed, with farmers unable to access their fields or transport seeds from markets to growing sites. Oral interviews with academics from Ghana – noted in my book The Covid Consensus – suggest that the same happened there.

This loss of food security catalysed inflationary pressures which emerged by the end of 2020. Much Western analysis has attributed this inflation to the war in Ukraine, but the evidence shows that it began long before. A Thompson-Reuters essay from June 2021 found inflationary pressures in low-income countries (LICs) around the world, with some interviewees saying price rises began as early as September 2020. A report from the UN food agency issued that month estimated a 39.7% increase in food prices between May 2020 and May 2021.

In addition to the inflationary pressures, other factors such as access to electricity, school closures (and loss of associated nutrition), premature marriage for adolescent girls, and restrictions on the informal market on which 85% of African workers depend all had major impacts on the lived experience of poverty. A December 2022 report for Afrobarometer noted that ‘government orders closing borders, restricting domestic travel, closing businesses … are likely to have had much more far-reaching effects on trade, sales, employment, and personal income … The International Energy Agency estimates that 15 million people who had recently gained access to electricity could no longer afford it’.

The Global South’s Current Socioeconomic Crisis

All this is crucial context for what is now happening in the Global South. As the Afrobarometer report put it, ‘by our measure of lived poverty, most countries surveyed by Afrobarometer have lost the gains they achieved in the early 21st century’. Indeed, according to the World Food Programme, globally 200 million more people are facing acute levels of food insecurity than before the Covid-19 pandemic. Given that this is over half the estimated 333 million people worldwide in acute food insecurity, pandemic policies provide the logical starting point when looking for what has gone wrong.

The epidemiological benefits of shutdowns in informal housing are negligible because of the overcrowded nature of such settlements

Policymakers must act now. A November 2023 report from the World Bank stated that Nigeria’s poverty rate would soar with rising inflation. Bloomberg reported the next day that the current debt crisis in African countries such as Ghana and Zambia is deteriorating rather than improving. This debt crisis means that, according to an October 2023 Oxfam report, 57% of LICs will cut public spending by a combined total of $220 billion over the next five years. This was an inevitable outcome of pandemic policies, since 85% of the Covid loans distributed by the IMF were tied to future austerity.

This is not just a catastrophe affecting the poorest people on Earth. The socioeconomic collapse means that half of LICs have cut health spending since March 2020, increasing the likelihood of epidemic outbreaks. Meanwhile, the enormous suffering has driven political turmoil, with a series of military coups across West and West-Central Africa.

Some may say that without Covid lockdowns, the virus would have been so devastating in poor countries as to render all of this academic. Yet in fact, the epidemiological benefits of shutdowns in informal housing are negligible because of the overcrowded nature of such settlements. Indeed, there is strong evidence from Mumbai’s slums that lockdowns accelerated the spread of Covid there.

Poverty drives political instability and socioeconomic distress. This is not a novel conclusion, but the socioeconomic consequences of pandemic policies were not sufficiently calibrated by policymakers. They have driven ruinous increases in poverty and insecurity all around the world. This must be a factor in future pandemic policymaking and in the current debate on new International Health Regulations being led by the WHO. While debates will continue as to their utility in high-income countries, the ruinous consequences of epidemiologically pointless lockdowns in the Global South are clear to anyone who looks at the evidence.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Toby Green

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