COVID-19: poorest young people in developing countries hit by deepening inequalities and falling well-being

A young woman wearing a face covering and washing her hands at a cleaning station in Ethiopia © © Young Lives / Mulugeta Gebrekidan. The images throughout our publications are of children living in circumstances and communities similar to the children within our study sample
A young woman washing her hands in Ethiopia

Poverty and gender significantly affect how the coronavirus pandemic impacts young people in developing countries, deepening inequalities, and diminishing well-being, according to new research involving Lancaster researchers.

Published by Young Lives, the research shows that rising food prices, increased household expenses, falling incomes, interrupted education, and shifting job patterns are typically impacting young people living in rural areas and in the poorest households most, with families turning to more traditional gender roles in times of stress and many young people reporting high levels of anxiety and depression.

Since 2001, Young Lives, an internationally renowned research programme at Oxford University, funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), has followed the lives of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India (Telangana and Andhra Pradesh), Peru and Vietnam. Dr Catherine Porter from Lancaster University Management School has been a member of the Young Lives research team for more than a decade and has been involved in the design of an innovative new phone survey to follow these young people (now aged 19 and 26), during the pandemic, to better understand how COVID-19 and associated national policies have affected their lives.

 “Today’s findings are from the second of three calls in our phone survey. COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise in Ethiopia, India and Peru, but we found that young people are currently more affected by the economic and social impacts of the pandemic than from the virus itself, with those from the poorest households typically hardest hit,” said leading author Dr Marta Favara, Deputy Director, Young Lives.

Most young people said their incomes had fallen, whilst food prices and household expenses have risen: In India, 8 out of 10 young people reported reduced household income and increased expenses, impacting rural and poorest households most; in Vietnam, which has had notable success in containing the virus to date, urban and wealthier households have been most affected economically.

Dr Catherine Porter from Lancaster University Management School led the new report focused on Ethiopia. She said: “The study shows the true impact that the pandemic is having on young people in Ethiopia. Even though they are less likely to get very sick, young people are worried about the situation as many live with parents and elderly relatives. The economic impacts are also a great source of stress - many have lost jobs or interrupted their education to try to help the family in some way. Young women in particular have been affected, due to their increasing caring responsibilities.” 

Many 19-year olds intend to resume studies once schools and universities reopen, but on-line learning will continue to exclude those without digital and internet access. Poorer students, particularly young men and those from rural backgrounds, who have had to find work to support family incomes, may struggle to return to education at all: In Peru, 16% of 19 year olds have dropped out of education for reasons including cost and lack of internet access; In Ethiopia, less than 5% of students could access on-line learning during the national lockdown.

Researchers found there has been an employment bounce back in all four countries since the end of national lockdowns. But, there has been a notable shift towards agriculture and self-employment and the return to work for young people remains incomplete in some countries: In Ethiopia, there has been a shift in our sample towards agriculture from 35% to 46%, and an increase in self-employment from 57% to 63%: In Peru, slow urban recovery means employment is still nine percentage points below pre-pandemic levels.

“These economic and social impacts are having multiple knock-on effects on individuals and households. The trend towards self-employment and work in agriculture, particularly by young men and those from rural and the poorest households, could be driven by reduced education opportunities and a return to family farms to help meet urgent needs. We were particularly concerned to find a significant decrease in well-being amongst the young people surveyed in Ethiopia, India and Peru; only those in Vietnam did not report this trend,” added Dr Favara.

In Peru, 30% of young people reported experiencing anxiety and 40% experienced symptoms of depression; this is compared to pre-pandemic average levels of 18% for 18 -27 year olds reported in the 2019 Demographic and Health Survey; Self-reported wellbeing for 18 / 19 year olds in India and Ethiopia showed a marked decrease when compared to the older study cohort at the same age.

Households have tended to resort to traditional gender roles at times of stress. Young women bore the greatest burden of increased household and caring responsibilities under lockdown, whilst more young men have left education to support pressed households: In India, 67% of young women undertook both increased childcare and household duties during lockdown compared to only 37% of young men.

Preliminary results show a significant proportion of the research sample in India and Peru reported an increase in experiences of domestic violence (it was not investigated in Ethiopia and Vietnam): 12% of our sample in India and 8% in Peru reported an increase in experiences of domestic violence during lockdown.

Young Lives are currently conducting a third call in this phone survey and will report further on these emerging trends in early 2021. 

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