The unequal pandemic: Are we really all in it together?

This blog was written by the authors of the Unequal Pandemic: Clare Bambra (Professor of Public Health, Population Health Sciences Institute at Newcastle University); Katherine Smith (Professor of Public Health Policy at University of Strathclyde); and Julia Lynch (Professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania). It was originally posted on the blog Transforming Society and has been re-posted here with their kind permission. 

In 1931 Edgar Sydenstricker identified inequalities in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, reporting a significantly higher incidence among the working classes. This challenged the widely held popular, political and scientific consensus of the time that ‘the flu hit the rich and the poor alike’.

In the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, there have been parallel claims made by politicians and the media – that we are ‘all in it together’ and that the COVID-19 virus ‘does not discriminate’.

But we can dispel this emerging myth of COVID-19 as an ‘equality of opportunity’ disease, by showing how, just as 100 years ago, the pandemic is experienced unequally across society. COVID-19 and inequality are a syndemic – a perfect storm.

The syndemic of COVID-19, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and the social determinants of health.

Our new book delves into international data and accounts, reaching the conclusion that the pandemic is unequal in four ways:

The pandemic kills unequally: COVID-19 deaths are twice as high in the most deprived neighbourhoods of England than in the most affluent, and infection rates are higher in the more deprived regions such as the north-east of England and in urban areas. There are also significant inequalities by ethnicity and race, with the mortality of ethnic minorities in the UK considerably higher than expected, and the death rates of black Americans in US cities such as Chicago far higher than for their white counterparts. This is because of the interaction of the pandemic with existing social, economic and health inequalities.

The pandemic is experienced unequally: the COVID-19 ‘lockdowns’ have resulted in a significant increase in social isolation and confinement within the home and immediate neighbourhood for an average of 10–12 weeks. The social and economic experiences of this lockdown are unequal, as lower-income workers are more likely to experience job and income loss, live in higher-risk urban and overcrowded environments, and have higher exposure to the virus by occupying key worker roles.

The pandemic impoverishes unequally: COVID-19 and the lockdowns have resulted in an unprecedented shock to the economy with widespread predictions of the worst recession for 300 years. This economic devastation will result in job losses, wage reductions, higher debt and more poverty, as well as increases in the ‘deaths of despair’. However, the social and geographical distribution of these economic impacts will be unequal – with low-income workers, women and ethnic minorities bearing the brunt.

These pandemic inequalities are political: the unequal impacts of COVID-19 were not inevitable – the pandemic was a predictable event and its unequal effects could have been mitigated or avoided through better preparation. The original inequalities leading to these unequal impacts were a result of prior political choices, and policy makers could have chosen to address the unequal impacts of the pandemic or not. Governments responded differently and those countries with higher rates of social inequality and less generous social security systems had a more unequal pandemic.

So, COVID-19 is a syndemic of infectious disease and inequalities. It has killed unequally, been experienced unequally and will impoverish unequally. These health inequalities, before, during and after the pandemic are a political choice – with governments effectively choosing who gets to live and who gets to die. Our book concludes by showing how we can learn from COVID-19 quickly to prevent inequality growing and to reduce health inequalities in the future.

Clare Bambra is Professor of Public Health, Population Health Sciences Institute at Newcastle University.

Katherine Smith is Professor of Public Health Policy at University of Strathclyde.

Julia Lynch is Professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania.

This post was originally written for the blog Transforming Society and has been re-posted here with their kind permission.

Critical perspectives on Education and Poverty: Extending the Discussion

This blog post was coordinated by Dr Tebeje Molla (Deakin University, Australia) and Dr Tigist Grieve (University of Bristol, UK), with contributions from Prof Leon Tikly (University of Bristol, UK), Dr Emily (Markovich) Morris (American University, Washington D.C., USA),  Dr Arif Naveed (University of Bath, UK), and Mr Simon Ingram-Hill (former Country Director for the British Council in Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Hungary, Mauritius). All views expressed are those of the contributor(s) cited.



As part of the Bristol Poverty Institute Conference, Poverty and the Sustainable Development Goals: From the Local to the Global (27-29 April 2021), an international group of scholars held a round-table discussion on education and poverty. The session was convened by Prof Leon Tikly and Dr Tigist Grieve. The panellists shared empirical findings and analytical reflections on the topic. However, we had limited time to answer questions posed by the chair Prof Leon Tikly at the end of the session. This short blog post therefore collates our responses to the questions. The video recording of the session along with some of our presenters’ slides can be found on the Bristol Poverty Institute website.

Visual minutes

Visual Minutes of the Session (Credit: Bristol Poverty Institute, Jorge Martin Illustrator)



Question 1: Tigist, how do we ensure the voices of rural girls are heard by policy makers?

Tigist: In answering this question, I am highlighting a piece of writing from my doctoral research. It has sections on voices and while it is a bit of a long response it captures my take on the issues of voice overall. In practice, it is notoriously difficult to get a hearing from policy makers even to the recommendations from senior scholars and established institutes let alone from girls. The possibility of getting voices of people living in rural areas heard and then taken seriously in the policy sphere is unattainable. In sum, I would say in the majority of cases where claims are made about ‘voices of the poor’ it is a proxy one. For further discussion and critical perspectives on this see (Chambers, 1997; Holland and Blackburn 1998; Boyden and Ennew 1997; Hart 2013; Morrow 2001) for example.

To begin with, there is limited direct link between the people in the policy sphere and academics engaged in research. Where there is direct link, there is a filtration of voices even within the academic sphere where those researchers on the ground perhaps with direct access to those voices are not the same as those who make the final call in the analysis, in how data is interpreted, what gets stripped away and what gets amplified. Further, the voices are diluted to fit academic style outputs, or policy briefs and so on.  Some established academics may get a hearing as government advisors and I am sure they do their best in maximising the opportunity to influence policy but that is a rare privilege and available for few. I don’t want us to misunderstand that I am arguing or expecting the voice to become policy rather I am saying a policy anchored on lived experience of people, responding to their concerns and that takes into account the impact of decisions e.g. the complex interplay between education, poverty and gender as we are speaking now will be impacted by decision for withdrawal of services, change in procedures and so on. For more about policy making please refer to the following publications:

Further, although community consultation can ideally be instrumental in ensuring that the voices of girls are heard, structural issues including repressive gender culture means that it might be difficult to hold open and free discussion in rural communities (see Tebeje’s comments below).  Even when you are entrusted by communities and successfully consult, as anthropologists and ethnographers do, you may generate so much knowledge (data), but you know deep down the complexities of utilising that into policy that can genuinely transform their situations.

Moreover, I am aware despite the increasing popularity of voice in social research and development discourse there are many questions over its practical application and at times it remains a rhetorical device (Wells 2009:182; also see Komulainen 2007). Commitment to voice should not blind us to the importance also of going beyond the immediate social worlds of children to theorise how children’s everyday lives are shaped and reshaped through globalization as well as political and economic conditions (see relevant discussions for this in Abebe 2020, Boyden 1997, Hart 2008, Katz 2004, Komulainen 2007; and for education-related policy relevant discussions see Crossley 2001, Tikly & Barrett 2013).

Generally, there is limited evidence of where girls’ voices from rural context influence policy. Having said that, we must also acknowledge the mighty but small-scale work by genuinely engaged third sector organisations, communities themselves and activists. In this context it is possible to hear and act on the voices of girls in small ways but still transformative in changing practices on the ground. To sum up, as we seek to amplify voices or for this to be part of transformative agenda in relation to gender equity in education, I want to draw our attention to recent critical contributions on the topic and call for greater sensitivity to the way voices of (children, teachers, communities) are interpreted in scholarly and policy circles.


Question 2: Emily, how might the Zanzibarian government most effectively respond to drop out? Ought they to focus on in school or out of school factors primarily (e.g. labour markets)?

Emily: Governments (Zanzibar and beyond) can start using the term pushout, recognizing that the majority of young people do not leave on their own volition and start tracking why young people are leaving, as well as listening to youth narratives of push-out and pull-out (echoing Tigist’s research).

In the case of Zanzibar, school quality – when linked with geography and familial poverty – is a major contributor to youth being pushed out of school and therefore an integrated approach to improving school quality is needed (for example better teacher training, increased guidance and counselling, accessible tuition/tutoring in difficult subjects like English) to ensure youth are not pushed out as a consequence of failing the exams (I echo all of Arif’s points on quality, see below).

Also, governments need to recognise that the human capital theory has its limitations when there is a small formal economy and large inequities in income based on geography, gender, and other factors (linking to Arif’s work on rate of returns and his points above). While Zanzibari boys tend to associate education with economic ends, this is not always the case for girls who see intrinsic and extrinsic value to education beyond economic ends. Thus collaboration between Ministries of Labour, Social Welfare, Women, and Children are critical to ensuring that education is relevant to the aspirations of youth of all genders and geographies (linking to Tigist and Tebeje’s points). Looking at the curricula and how school is preparing youth for different futures is part of ensuring education is relevant, as well as ensuring that youth have the support needed to navigate the many barriers and obstacles they encounter while trying to achieve “the good life.”


Question 3: Tebeje, how might the Ethiopian government go about evaluating and prioritising the capability set for learners in Ethiopia?

Tebeje: Educational capability refers to people’s genuine options to be well educated. It is widely seen as a foundational capability that expands human freedom in other spheres of life.

Achieved educational outcomes are observable and easy to assess. Whereas educational capability sets may not be readily discernible, we can only access those through indirect means of assessment. To begin with, governments can evaluate and prioritise the capability sets of learners through two interrelated processes. First, to understand the substantiveness of opportunities of equity targets, one can start with assessing observable outcomes of the group. It is a backward process that proceeds from the outputs to inputs. The focus is on what genuine options people have to achieve alternative functionings. For instance, policymakers who are interested in addressing gender inequality in education may visit rural schools. A high level of gender inequality in those schools may force the visitors to ask about real options that girls in the area have to participate in education and training.

But such evaluative processes cannot provide a complete picture about substantiveness of educational opportunities and conversion abilities of individuals. For example, a backward evaluation does not tell us why two groups or individuals with similar educational capability sets might end up achieving different levels of outcomes. A young girl from illiterate farming families in rural Ethiopia and a boy from high-paid professional parents in Addis may have equal access to basic education (in terms of having a publicly funded school nearby) but they are surely not equally positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. Conversion abilities of the two students vastly vary. Hence, there is a need for a complementary process, namely public consultation. Broad-based community consultation enables governments to understand specific conditions and needs of equity target groups such as girls in rural areas, students with disability, and learners from historically marginalised ethnic groups. Clarity on those issues, in turn, makes it possible for policymakers to ensure that educational opportunities are adequate, relevant, and convertible.

Still, public consultation is not without limitations. The notion of public reasoning presupposes a democratic political culture where people freely and reflectively express their wishes. In reality, as Sen notes, “the way people read the world in which they live” can be obscured by relational and structural factors around them. Hence, due in part to political, cultural, and social barriers, people in less democratic countries (e.g. Ethiopia) may not be completely free to articulate their needs and aspirations during public consultations.


Question 4: Arif, what are the two or three top priorities for South Asian governments who wish to use education to combat poverty?

Arif: I feel there are a few things that the governments could do to enhance the transformative potential of schooling in the lives of the poor in South Asia.

First, the quality of education needs to be improved drastically, specially at the basic levels. The kind of schools and schooling that have been made available to the poor do not enhance their skills that are economically rewarding or even help them pursue further schooling. The unprecedented expansion of education in the last 2-3 decades has led to the overcrowded and under-resourced classrooms with children graduating without acquiring literacy and numeracy skills. Without significant improvement in quality, the levels of schooling that poor can realistically acquire cannot help them break out of poverty.

Second, the evidence from the longitudinal studies points towards a targeted approach for the poor families as universal approaches do not serve them. Poor children are more likely to drop out of schools at early stages. Scaffolding their academic progression and helping their transitions into decent work are essential. Third, economic opportunities are fundamental for the poor families’ educational decision-making. If the labour market doesn’t provide a fair chance to everyone, and poor are less likely to gain decent employment through schooling, the goals of universalising educational access and eradicating poverty through it cannot be realised. Transforming labour markets however requires a wider set of reforms that address all forms of social inequality at the community levels, and the national and global power structures that determine the possibilities of economic growth in the regional countries.


Question 5: Simon, based on your rich experience, which country that you have worked in has been most successful in tackling poverty and what role did education play?

Simon: This is a difficult question to answer as my direct experience in each of the six Sub-Saharan African countries I worked in from the mid-80’s (Cameroon, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique Mauritius, and Sierra Leone) was time-bound and came at different historical points in the struggle to alleviate poverty. Each, except notably Mauritius, was facing very significant internal challenges such as Ebola in Sierra Leone in 2014/15, or were recovering, five to ten years on, from hugely destabilising civil conflicts as in Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. But global factors have also been critical. For example, Sierra Leone’s economy was already suffering from the 2013 collapse in global iron ore prices which made its recovery from Ebola all the more difficult.

Statistics tell different stories, some suggesting a degree of stagnation in the standard of living in certain countries over the last 30 years; however, World Bank GDP per capita figures do show a steady improvement in all six countries with significant dips where crises have occurred. Covid-19 is set to continue this pattern.

Within education, increases in access and latterly of quality have taken place. While these cannot be stated as directly causing poverty reduction, some initiatives such as increasing girls’ education can be seen to have an impact on social development. For example, evidence suggests each additional year of a girl’s secondary schooling can reduce the chance of pregnancy by approximately 6%.

The richer the country, the better it has fared. Mauritius has been able to tackle its own economic challenges more successfully – as on the removal of the EU sugar subsidy, through greater diversification of its economy.  At the other end of the scale Sierra Leone has taken some important education decisions with its 2015 National Ebola Recovery Strategy. It has focused on improving teaching quality and skills-based learning at primary and secondary levels and increasing the relevance of higher education curricula to create a more effective workforce. These strongly suggest how that country sees the interconnections between education and poverty alleviation.


Round-table Discussion Participants

Prof Leon Tikly (Global Chair in Education and Director of the Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education, School of Education, University of Bristol, UK).

Dr Tigist Grieve (Senior Research Associate, School of Policy Studies, University of Bristol, UK)

Dr Emily (Markovich) Morris (Director of International Training and Education Program and Senior Professorial Lecturer, School of Education, American University, Washington D.C., USA)

Dr Tebeje Molla (DECRA Fellow, Deakin University, Australia).

Dr Arif Naveed (Lecturer, School of Education, University of Bath, UK).

Mr Simon Ingram-Hill (former Country Director for the British Council in Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Hungary, Mauritius).

Screenshot of panellists


Recordings and presentation slides from the full round-table discussion are available on the Bristol Poverty Institute’s conference webpages.

BPI Conference 2021 – Updates from Illustrator

The BPI Conference on Poverty and the Sustainable Development Goals: From  the Local to the Global took place online from 27-29 April 2021 inclusive.

Throughout the conference our fantastic scribe captured visual minutes, summarising the key messages and discussion points. You can view the full conference programme on our website, and recordings and presentations will be available via the BPI website after the conference.

Day 1, Multidimensional Poverty

Day 1, Child Health and Development

Day 2, Livelihoods and Debt

Day 2, Food and Nutrition

Day 3, Engaging with Policy and Practice

Day 3, Education and Building Back Fairer

To address ethnic inequalities in COVID-19, we must acknowledge the multifaceted influence of racism

Author: Dr Saffron Karlsen, Associate Professor in Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, University of Bristol

Dr Saffron Karlsen explores some of the key issues that must be addressed if we are to establish a more complete picture of these inequalities and their drivers


The evidence of ethnic inequalities in the number of COVID-related infections and deaths in the UK is compelling. Rates of hospital death among Bangladeshi, Black African and Pakistani people are between two and four times those of the UK’s white British population.

But discussions of how to address these inequalities are dominated by preconceived assumptions about their cause. Despite lacking empirical support, such assumptions form a barrier against a more comprehensive investigation which might offer effective solutions.

Why the focus on the causes of ethnic inequalities is too selective

Over the past year, media, politicians and many academics have emphasised the role of individual factors – for example, particular genes/biologies or cultures/behaviours – in the generation of ethnic inequalities in COVID-19. We have heard much about the effects of co-morbidities and multi-generational residential choices, but less about the impact of social exclusion and the ways in which the opportunities of many people in society are limited.

This ignores the wealth of evidence showing the overriding importance of such structural or societal factors, including that provided by more than 4,000 stakeholders to the Public Health England inquiry into ethnic inequalities in COVID-19 last year, where racism and its consequences were considered central.

Instead, conversations remain somewhat simplistic. There is little space to discuss the institutional racisms experienced in education, employment, housing, healthcare etc. Or how these and other racisms contribute to ethnic inequalities in experiences of deprivation, unemployment, over-qualification, low pay, and poorer health – including hypertension, diabetes and respiratory illness, with their well-publicised links to COVID-19 complications.

If we wish to establish a more complete picture of these inequalities and their drivers, there are several issues that need addressing:

(1) We must recognise there is no evidence that ethnic inequalities in COVID-19, or the vast majority of health conditions which vary by ethnicity, are explained by genetic or biological factors. The ethnic inequalities in COVID-19 infections and deaths we see in the UK and United States are not consistent around the globe. Indeed, the relatively unscathed experience of many African countries is, to date, considered among the few pandemic success stories.

(2) We must acknowledge that little can be learned about these patterns of inequality through sweeping categories such as ‘BAME’, ‘white/non-white’ – or even slightly more disaggregated ethnic categories such as ‘Indian’ and ‘Black African’, which still ignore the vast differences in experiences within these population groups. Of course, experiences also differ by age, gender, religion, class etc. To ensure we are asking the right questions of the right people, we must embed people with lived experience early in the research process.

(3) We must also understand that proving the importance of one COVID-19 risk factor will not necessarily negate another. There is often an assumption that to see a true ‘ethnic’ effect, we must remove the muddying effects of ‘deprivation’. But this ignores the inter-relationships between these experiences. More sensitive approaches recognise deprivation as one of the ways in which racism affects the health of those in racialised groups – and this holds true for COVID-19.

These inter-relationships can also help us understand other limitations with the traditional approaches to addressing ethnic inequalities. Methods which statistically adjust for deprivation assume we are comparing like with like – that these measures mean the same to everyone in our analytical models. But the value of (for example) educational outcomes and social class as proxies for socioeconomic position is questioned in the face of evidence of the greater ‘over-qualification’ experienced, or lower wages received, by people in ethnic minority groups for similar roles.

Similarly, broad markers of employment status might accommodate ethnic inequalities in unemployment, but not the particular economic and health consequences of the repeated and longer-term unemployment that is more common within some ethnic minority groups. And there is also a need here to recognise that routes into self-employment may not always tell a positive story, particularly for those experiencing racism in the workplace, or while trying to access it. In the same way, assumptions that owner-occupation of property indicates affluence/good health become less reliable among those excluded from renting by racism or other constraints.

Without taking these realities into account, we can’t be confident that we have adjusted for everything we think we have.

(4) The desire to identify simple (biological) solutions to COVID’s ethnic inequalities produces barriers against more in-depth exploration. The concentration of people in ethnic minority groups in key worker roles is no doubt part of the explanation for ethnic inequalities in COVID-19 among the general population. But it does not help us understand ethnic inequalities in deaths among health workers.

While we know these inequalities cannot be explained by genetics, such assumptions mean we still do not fully understand what does explain them. Do health workers with certain ethnicities undertake roles which put them at higher risk of infection than other health workers? What has been the impact of the reported ethnic inequalities in access to PPE on COVID-19 risk? Or the reliance on public transport to get to work?

Additional workplace risk assessments and removing people in ethnic minority groups from the frontline were an appropriate response to an emergency, buying us time to establish the cause of these disparities. But assumptions of biological risk have prevented this more detailed work being done – which may in turn lead to employer reticence when recruiting or promoting staff from ethnic minority groups, exacerbating existing ethnic inequalities in employment without justification.

(5) This selective focus also limits attention on other implications of the pandemic. People in ethnic minority groups already struggling to make ends meet commonly found themselves in occupations that were more vulnerable to the economic consequences of social distancing measures. Our understanding of the mental health, educational and other consequences of lockdowns that have been lived in situations of deprivation, food-scarcity, overcrowding or digital exclusion remains lacking, but must also be part of this story – along with the positive contributions made by local organisations and communities to mitigate these difficulties, and how we may build on this in future.

Conclusion: We cannot find solutions by ignoring the roots of the problem

Summer 2020: amid the terror of COVID-19, an opportunity. Never before had so many people been galvanised around the need for action – in the face of ethnic inequalities in COVID-19, and recognition of the myriad ways racism devastates lives and the true sources of the UK’s ethnic inequalities problems. Unfortunately, this energy risks being snuffed out even before it really gets going.

In their controversial government-commissioned report, Dr Tony Sewell et al were right to draw attention to the legacies of racism – but not for the reasons they expressed. Historical experiences of racism laid the ground for the distrust and disengagement of many of those in Britain’s racialised communities. But these concerns persist, because racist attitudes and behaviours continue to be repeated and reinforced by members of the public – and society’s representatives and leaders. We cannot address ethnic disparities, including in vaccine uptake, if we ignore the reasons for this widespread distrust.

The pandemic has already seen a dramatic rise in incidents of anti-Asian and other racist violence; other patterns will no doubt emerge with the latest ‘foreign’ variants. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing ethnic inequalities in many ways, some of which – such as the impact of vaccine passports – are yet to be felt. Sewell et al’s report makes it less likely that these issues will be given the attention they require, adding to the sense that Britain is a society for some and not others.


Dr Saffron Karlsen is Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Bristol, and co-leads the Bristol Race Equality Network. A recording of Saffron’s talk on ‘Understanding Ethnic Inequalities in COVID-19’ at the Bristol Poverty Institute’s webinar on ‘Poverty Dimensions of the Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities’ can be found via the following link, alongside talks from Dr Andrea Barry (Joseph Rowntree Foundation), Ms Chiara Lodi (Black South West Network) and Dr Soumya Chattopadhyay (Overseas Development Institute): 

This blog post was originally posted on the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) blog and has been re-blogged here with their kind permission in recognition of the BPI’s role in supporting their collaboration with Dr Saffron Karlsen:  

The value of water – reducing poverty, death, and illness

Author: Professor Guy Howard, Department of Engineering, University of Bristol

Warning: Contains language some may find offensive

What does water mean for you? Do you, like me, relish the prospect of flowing warm water for your morning shower and making coffee? Or perhaps it is the glass of cold water during the day that refreshes you and keeps you alert? Or the water you use every day to prepare and cook the food you enjoy? A central part of all our lives.

For me, water has formed the central plank of my career over the past 30 years. It started during a trip to Uganda in the mid-1980s to visit family working for Voluntary Services Overseas. That trip, which opened my 18-year-old eyes to many things including just how scary it is to walk along a road at night and hear machine gun fire just ahead of you, showed me why simply providing drinking water is so important. In communities throughout the country, I saw the drudgery women and girls faced in collecting water and the reality of young children dying simply because they drank contaminated water.

These experiences led me into working on a rural water project as a young VSO volunteer in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, and then back in Uganda in the late 1990s, living amid a cholera outbreak, where ‘protected’ springs and poor hygiene in hospitals played major roles in transmission. Later, in Bangladesh, I was confronted by the consequences for poor people when the water they drink is contaminated with arsenic.

The thread that connects all these experiences is poverty. Water expresses what it means to be poor in very stark terms. If you are poor, you are more likely to have to walk and collect water from a water source shared with hundreds of other people. At the moment, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that means exposing yourself to high levels of risk of disease because social distancing is impossible and because you cannot collect enough water to wash your hands as often as the health advice says. If you are poor but lucky enough to have a connection to a piped water supply, it is likely to be unreliable, expensive, and poor quality. Water also illustrates what it means to be poor in a rich country. There remain (mainly black and first nations) communities in the USA that still lack running water. If you are homeless in the UK, getting enough water to drink and to wash is a daily challenge.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. Access to a water supply is a human right and we have the technologies and systems we know that work. It is true that the world has made much progress in providing water supply, but we need to continue to see its value in reducing burdens on women and girls, preventing children shitting themselves to death, and preventing people dying of cancer because they drink contaminated water. The value of water for me is its ability to help reduce the poverty that millions of people worldwide continue to endure.


Professor Guy Howard is the University of Bristol’s Global Research Chair for Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience, the Associate Director for International at the Cabot Institute for the Environment, and a member of the Bristol Poverty Institute’s Advisory Board.

Poverty Dimensions of COVID-19 for Girls in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs): Webinar Summary


On Thursday 11 February, the Bristol Poverty Institute (BPI) held the fourth webinar in our ‘Poverty Dimensions of COVID-19’ series: Poverty Dimensions of COVID-19 for Girls in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs)

The webinar had over 60 attendees representing a range of sectors and organisations including civil sector, national and international NGOs, charities, consultants, and academics from around the world, including individuals from France, Mexico, Canada, Senegal, Indonesia, Norway, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Turkey and China. This diverse audience was deliberate: the series has been designed to bring together a variety of participants representing different sectors, with a range of theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary approaches.

Our webinar featured four fantastic speakers who explored different dimensions of the impact COVID-19 has had on girls in LMICs from different perspectives, with a Q&A session at the end. The slides from these presentations will be available shortly on the BPI website, and we will also be uploading recordings of the presentations.

Speakers and titles


Dr Tigist Grieve and Dr Alba Lanau Sánchez, ‘Corona has really spoiled a lot of things’: Adolescent girls experiences of COVID in Burkina Faso & Sierra Leone

Our first presentation came from two collaborative speakers: Dr Tigist Grieve, Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol; and Dr Alba Lanau Sánchez, Research Fellow at the Centre d’Estudis Demogràfics (CET) which is an affiliated institute to the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain.

Tigist began by providing an outline of the African Report on Child Wellbeing 2020, produced by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) in collaboration with partners including the University of Bristol and researchers across the five countries where the research took place. In response to the emergence of COVID-19 the project team are seeking to explore what the economic impact of the pandemic has been on adolescent girls, and to what extend the impacts of the pandemic have been mediated by factors such as girls’ socio-economic status and geographical location.

This presentation focussed primarily on impacts in Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone. Tigist explained how the situation girls in each country is different. For example, Burkina Faso have prioritized improving young people’s access to health care though its National Health Development Plan, whilst in Sierra Leone they abolished secondary school fees and focused on the National Reproductive, New-born, Child, and Adolescent Health Strategy. The countries at the focus of the research have relatively low figures of COVID-19 in terms of deaths; however, there is major concern over adolescent girls. Tigist explained that poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa is already a huge problem, and one which is likely to worsen.  There is major concern about the risks to children because of increased food insecurity, with more than 26 million girls across Africa already relying on school meals as a source of nutrition. Access to school feeding programs have been stopped due to schools being closed, significantly impacting on the lives of huge numbers of children and young people.

Slide containing text

Alba then introduced some of the findings of their project to date. She began by explaining how whilst most research studies are generally focussed on health this project specifically sought to draw upon girls’ voices, which are rarely heard. The study involved talking to 87 adolescent girls aged 14-19 across five countries. Girls were asked about their education, safety, health, hopes and dreams and specifically their own understanding and experiences of COVID-19.  Alba explained that the general expectation is already for an increase in poverty and inequality in Africa; however, the team wanted to find out how COVID-19 has reinforced this, and how it has affected girls’ experiences.

Alba highlighted that girls have different experiences depending on their positionality, and the team identified three different groups (plus an additional group only in Burkina Faso). The groups were

  1. Those with limited economic impact.
  2. Those who are managing to cope.
  3. Those who are struggling and/or have been severely impacted.
  4. Those whose lives are defined by conflict (Burkina Faso only).

Alba explained that the first group are relatively sheltered from the economic impact of pandemic. The second group have experienced some loss in livelihood and income but are coping and adapting by using their existing resources. In this group more girls are now working in their family workplace. The third group are those struggling and suffering severe impact, including extreme poverty and hunger and complete loss of income. Many girls in this group reported impacts on others rather than themselves, talking about their friends/family members losing income and having to care for others.  Some girls also reported others who were struggling and turning to sex work.  For those in the fourth group (Burkina Faso only) conflict is still the key factor in their lives, and COVID-19 has therefore not altered their lives. Alba noted that within this group those who have money had sent their children away, whereas those without money were forced to remain in the conflict situation. This is therefore an example of how experience of the pandemic is mediated by socio-economic and geographic position, and those better off are often more protected.

Slide with text

Alba highlighted how important it is to listen to children’s voices to understand their lived experiences, particularly girls, who often downplay economic struggles. The girls interviewed through this project commonly reported isolation, fear of COVID-19, and feelings of insecurity, with one interviewee stating that “early marriage is when you are sent to marriage at an early age due to poverty”.

Alba and Tigist concluded by highlighting that the pandemic will increase economic inequality, hitting the poorest the hardest. Income support is therefore needed for those working in informal sectors, small farms, and other small businesses. The pandemic is likely to deviate transitional trajectories accelerating the end of schooling and/or marriage and increasing gender inequality. They therefore called for responses to the (post) pandemic to be gender sensitive.


Ms Maria McLaughlin, The Case for Holistic Investment in Girls: Improving Lives, Realizing Potential, Benefitting Everyone

The next speaker was Maria McLaughlin, Global Policy and Advocacy Advisor for Economic Empowerment at Plan International with a focus on adolescents and youth. Maria is also a researcher on women and youth empowerment, with a focus on market entry-points for women and youth, and analysis of their barriers to entry and success. Plan International is an independent development and humanitarian organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls.

Maria introduced a study undertaken by Plan International and Citi bank during late 2019 and completed in 2020. The study looked at the case for holistic investment in girls, specifically adolescent girls. She explained that this study is based on some assumptions on the pathway through adolescence for girls and how it compares with the situation for adolescent boys. The assumptions made in this study is based on information from various analyses, including from the Gates Foundation, focusing on ages 10-19 which is a critical phase in life for both girls and boys when many transitional social, economic, and biological events are taking place.

Maria explained that challenges faced by girls in LMICs include early and forced marriage, with 21% married before their eighteenth birthday. She went on to introduce some key pre-COVID-19 statistics, which showed that:

  • 132 million girls worldwide are out of school, including 100 million girls at secondary school age.
  • More than 85% of girls in low-income countries do not complete secondary school.
  • Intimate partner violence affects around 29% of girls aged 15-19 worldwide.
  • Globally one in five women were married before their eighteenth birthday.
  • Almost a billion girls and young women under the age of 24 are lacking key skills needed for life and work. In lower middle-income countries, this translates to 75% and rises to 93% in low-income countries.

This research was carried out in eight LMIC’s: Ghana, Uganda, Mali, El Salvador, Bolivia, India, Lao PDR, and Egypt. The team looked at potential for investment in 12 years of education through to secondary school completion and two years of multi complement intervention to prevent child marriage and violence and promote economic independence. There is an assumption that this leads to increased years of schooling, leading to higher employment earnings. The analytical framework for the research looked at the business-as-usual scenario and compared with an increase in investment scenario. Maria explained that assumptions must be made around education, labour demand, and government policies, so the research does not take these variables into account. Maria also explained that there were limitations and boundaries for this research. For example, one challenge when looking at global data was that it rarely segregates for gender and age.

With these caveats notes, Maria reported that the project findings indicated that if 100% secondary school completion were achieved and if investment of achievement were in place it could lift the emerging economies by ten percent compared with pre COVID-19. The report makes an argument that the level of investment involved – $1.30 per day – has a multiplied effect in terms of GDP as well as moral investment. She noted that the cost in Mali and Uganda would be greater than the returns; however, the positive impact there would be much greater than the other countries. She also reported that in countries where the secondary school completion rate is lower the benefits will take longer to materialise but are greater long term. Maria therefore summarised that holistic approach to investment would have a higher return over the course of a girl’s life. The report states that it is not just the education alone to achieve the benefits: a multi-level approach is required.

Maria concluded her presentation by exploring the potential impacts of COVID-19 on these groups. The emerging research speculates on the impacts of COVID-19 based on the trajectories. Before COVID-19 more than 130 million girls worldwide were out of school, one in five women were married before their eighteenth birthday, and almost 30% of girls aged 15-19 were affected by intimate partner violence. After COVID-19, 743 million girls were out of school and UNESCO estimates that over 11 million girls may not return to school after the crisis. Teenage pregnancies often increase in times of crisis, extreme poverty will be faced by many families who relied on school lunch programmes, and cases of child marriage and domestic violence are all rising. These are therefore worrying trends that need urgent attention.

Slide with text


Dr Anita Ghimire, the impact of COVID-19 on girls working in the adult entertainment sector in Nepal

The final speaker was Dr Anita Ghimire, Research Director at the Nepal Institute for Social and Environmental Research (NISER).  Her research experiences are on migration and mobility, social norms and gender, adolescents and young people, and social protection, in addition to evaluation studies of different interventions.

Anita introduced ‘Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence’ (GAGE), a nine-year programme of work looking at research in nine LMICs to try and understand what works for enabling adolescent girls to transition into a better adulthood.  In Nepal there are three different strands of GAGE, with Anita’s presentation focussing on girls working in risky jobs in the adult entertainment sector (AES). Anita explained how the AES is an informal economy, consisting of hotels, guesthouses, commercial sex work on the street and freelance sex work. This work is establishment based and affiliated with an institution such as a hotel or dance bar, and involves physical, economic, and sexual exploitation of girls, including minors. Girls enter this sector through their peer network, boyfriends, or male relatives, or recruiting mechanisms from brokers who are operating online.

Anita noted that entertainment sectors were closed in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, informal personal connections remained, and hotels were still connecting girls with clients discreetly. There was still a decrease in work, with sex workers reporting that they previously had three to five customers a day, which dropped down to only one or two clients a week during lockdown. The Nepalese government eventually eased lockdown for a few hours per day which meant clients visited early morning and evening, although there continued to be a lower demand due to factors including changes in working hours, challenges of childcare for the women workers, worries about catching COVID-19, and closed borders preventing people from travelling from surrounding countries for adult entertainment.  As a result many girls moved their work onto the streets, increasing competition for the limited clientele. This included an increase in international sex workers from China, Malaysia, and Africa who had previously worked in high-end casinos and were willing to charge lower rates, creating more competition for Nepalese girls and women.

The implications of lockdown for these women and girls were therefore severe, including an increase in food insecurity and vulnerability. Many of the girls had previously eaten their daily meals in the establishment where they worked, so were unable to eat due to their workplace being closed. Some were also living in the hotels or guesthouses where they worked, and when the establishments closed, they were also made homeless. Sometimes the girls were so desperate that they sold their bodies for a single meal or drink. Anita reported that the levels of desperation were so severe that some said they would work for a small amount of money to buy poison to kill themselves and their children, as they would rather die than be unable to feed their children.

Slide with text

The girls reported an increase in violence from their partners and/or clients, and some clients would not pay them money and buy them a beer instead. There was also violence from police arresting girls for just being on the streets. Some were blackmailed for sex from clients; there were threats to tell the girls families if they did not provide sex for free. There was also increased vulnerability to COVID-19 infection because of the close contact, and an increase in sexually transmitted infections and in pregnancies.

Anita went on to introduce some of the survival strategies the women and girls had implemented during lockdown. For example, some of the unmarried, child-free girls had previously made a good amount of money and were therefore able to use their savings to survive. Working for less money or for food was another strategy. Some girls tried alternative livelihoods, some cut down on food and basic hygiene, and some sold their assets. Anita then highlighted some of the other outcomes of the pandemic on girls on the AES. For example, she noted how some of the girls organised themselves into groups to help with childcare and to help one other with clients. In addition, whilst some girls started revisiting exploitative relationships with partners and employers, there was an increased recognition of the exploitation they were facing and a movement towards making decisions that were beneficial for themselves. They also learnt the value of savings and looked at alternative less risky livelihoods.

Anita concluded by highlighting the importance of activating and creating awareness on secondary reporting mechanisms and to tackle issues related to deprivation of basic human rights of children, particularly around food, shelter, and protection. Having hungry children hungry is a big problem for the girls in the AES and the social protection system should therefore expand to women working in this area.



Following the presentations the Chair, Dr Lauren Winch (BPI Manager) opened up the floor to questions from the audience, as well as discussions among the panel members. Topics of discussion included how poverty and sex work can go hand-in-hand in many different country contexts, gender inequalities, and shifting aspirations among girls in terms of education, career and family lives.

Recordings of the discussion, as well as all of the presentations, will be available on the BPI website shortly.

Closing the discussions Lauren summarised how the webinar covered a range of interesting and important topics. She noted how COVID-19 is having wide ranging, complex, and devastating impacts on communities across the world and those in poverty will be disproportionately affected, exacerbating existing inequalities including those relating to gender. She noted that hopefully by coming together and learning about different perspectives, approaches and challenges we can be better situated to make a positive impact individually and collectively. The Bristol Poverty Institute is keen to keep these discussions going, and to explore ways to tackle the challenges and inequalities exposed and exacerbated by this pandemic. For more information or to discuss an idea please get in touch with the BPI team (

Finally, Lauren also announced that the BPI are running a large online conference from 27-29 April 2021 exploring Poverty and the Sustainable Development Goals at all scales from the local to the global. The conference will have non-academic speakers throughout, including people with lived experiences of poverty to ensure their voices are represented. It will explore a wide range of topics, from food and nutrition to education, and from livelihoods and debt to child health and development, and the ambition is to bring together representatives from across the world to tackle these complex issues.

For more information on the BPI…

Check out our website:

Follow us on Twitter: @bristolpoverty

Get in touch:


Authors: Mrs Melanie Tomlin and Dr Lauren Winch

The poverty and inequality dimensions of COVID-19 in Africa: webinar summary

Bristol Poverty Institute and Perivoli Africa Research Centre hosted

The poverty and inequality dimensions of COVID-19 in Africa

Thursday 12 November 2020 (online)

On Thursday 12 November the  Bristol Poverty Institute (BPI) and Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC) co-hosted a webinar exploring the poverty and inequality dimensions of COVID-19 in Africa. This webinar was attended by around 50 participants representing a range of sectors and organisations including international NGOs and academics from around the globe. More than a third of registered attendees were from outside the UK, with almost half of these from African countries including Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya.

This webinar provided a broad overview of how COVID-19 has been intersecting with and exacerbating inequalities and poverty in Africa, recognising the huge breadth of challenges, geographies, societies, political and physical environments, and other dimensions of both poverty and COVID-19 across the continent. We were delighted to be joined by a fantastic panel of seven speakers, who gave four thought-provoking presentations. Presentations lasted around 15 minutes each, with a short Q&A following each one.

The slides and recordings from these presentations can be accessed via the BPI website.

List of presenters and titles 

Professor David Gordon, COVID-19 infection vulnerability in Africa

The first speaker was Professor David Gordon, Professor of Social Justice and the Director of the Bristol Poverty Institute and Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research at the University of Bristol.

David began by introducing survey microdata from over 50 countries with information on some 3.2 million people, analysis of which found that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to increase the amount of severe poverty, affecting from 10s to 100s of millions of people, depending on duration of the pandemic. He highlighted how evidence from previous twenty-first century epidemics, including Zika, SARA and Ebola, shows us that there is a consistent increase in the inequalities not only during pandemics themselves but also during the subsequent 5 years.

David noted that the situation in Africa is particularly problematic, where concerns relating to population density in poor urban areas, plus a large informally employed population, insufficient handwashing basics, and high rates of underlying health conditions suggested potential for disaster.

He noted, however, that the African Union had adopted a continental strategy promptly in March 2020 including quarantines, lockdowns, border controls, and public health information. This involved a different set of policies and approaches to the European-style lockdowns, which would have had limited effectiveness in many African contexts and may even have been counter-productive. This is one of many illustrative examples of how it cannot be assumed that the policies of the Global North can be transplanted to Africa and other global contexts.

Information on COVID-19 infection in Africa

Despite the severe challenges that this pandemic has presented, the next section of David’s presentation highlighted that severe poverty has not prevented an effective fight against the pandemic. He gave examples of how Uganda, Togo, and Rwanda have managed to suppress the outbreak. For example, in Uganda they were able drew upon the experience of a public health system that already knows how to deal with outbreaks, meaning that anti-infection measures were in place four days before the first case arrived. This resulted in only 2,750 cases and only 28 deaths at the time of reporting. This was in stark comparison to the UK, with only a slightly larger population and a vastly larger public expenditure, which had had 40,000 deaths and over one million cases by the end of August.

David was keen to ensure that this success story was balanced by an account of vulnerability, however, indicators of which included crowded living conditions, age, obesity, lack of cleaning supplies, shared/scarce toilet facilities and water sources, and other factors. These factors led to increased contact and risk of spreading disease both through the shared use of resources and facilities but also due to the fact that compliance with social distancing in these situations is difficult if not impossible.  David emphasised that governments need to provide money, for loans, essential food, soap, water, cleaning materials to aid compliance, and that local authorities can also have a positive impact through initiatives such as queuing systems and provision of masks.

David concluded his presentation by noting that despite the successes in some quarters there are still desperately challenging times ahead across the continent, including both direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19.

Professor Gordon’s presentation can be viewed in full via the BPI website.


Professor Isabella Aboderin, The impact of COVID-19 on older generations in Africa

The second speaker was Professor Isabella Aboderin, the Director of the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC) at the University of Bristol. Isabella began by highlighting the importance of situating thinking around the impacts and implications of COVID-19 in Africa in the context of the broader discourse on ageing and older populations. She highlighted now Africa is a very ‘young’ continent, but one with a rapidly growing absolute number of older people. There has been little concern to date with the impacts of ageing on the sustainability of systems, whereas the ensuring of wellbeing and rights has been the focus.

Overview of presentation

Isabella outlined the recent discourse and scholarly trends surrounding older age research, and the general truths that a) later-life poverty reflects exposures in earlier phases of life course (e.g. lack of formal education, ill-health, etc.) and b) there is no one systematic approach to later-life course. She then went on to explore the debate on social protections, and why we are seeing inequalities in older populations.

Isabella went on to highlight that heightened COVID risk among older adults are influenced by a range of factors including lower income, food insecurity, higher prevalence of chronic diseases, compromised capacity for protection against COVID, access and adequacy of health system responsiveness, and restrictions on movement including practical, social and emotional. The tolls these factors take on mental and physical health is considerable and have implications for scientific and policy debate when considering a wider context in sub-Saharan Africa.

She noted how it is imperative to identify priority investments to reduce poverty and inequality. Within that, there is an urgent need to better understand the nature and scope of old age poverty and inequalities. Specifically, how has the COVID crisis impacted age-based multidimensional poverty inequalities and what role have intergenerational dynamics played? How does age interact with other factors (gender, geography, disability, etc.) and, crucially, how is this likely to evolve over medium term?

Isabella concluded by noting the significance of these conceptual and methodological challenges, as well as the important opportunity collectively such challenges present for concerted Africa-led research.

Professor Aboderin’s presentation can be viewed in full via the BPI website.


Professor Hassan O Kaya, Dr Injairu Kulundu-Bolus, Dr Michael Tusiime and Dr Rafael Mitchell, Researching education, poverty and sustainability in the context of COVID-19

The next presentation came from a panel of speakers representing the GCRF research network Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF), which focuses on socially and environmentally just education for climate action, decent work and sustainable cities. TESF is supporting up to 80 Southern-led projects in Rwanda, Somalia/Somaliland, South Africa and India. The presentation featured four speakers representing several of the programme partners: Professor Hassan O Kaya (University of KwaZulu Nata, South Africa), Dr Injairu Kulundu-Bolus (Rhodes University, South Africa), Dr Michael Tusiime (University of Rwanda, Rwanda), and Dr Rafael Mitchell (University of Bristol, UK), bringing a range of knowledge, expertise and perspectives to this important discussion.

Information on speakers


Professor Hassan O Kaya opened the presentation with a short talk on COVID-19 research and paradigm shifts, highlighting how the pandemic has exposed and worsened the uncertainties and contradictions in the conceptualisations of global challenges including pandemics, poverty, climate change, educational transformation, social justice and human rights. He called for a multi- and trans-disciplinary research approaches for a holistic understanding, from the perspectives of the affected communities and social groups themselves.

Presentation slide

Hassan observed how Africa’s response to the pandemic in terms of education saw institutions at all levels closing abruptly and moving learning online. This exposed and exacerbated existing socioeconomic inequalities and the digital divide between privileged and underprivileged pupils, students and families. Hassan concluded that there ought to be emphasis laid on self-reliance, and it is critical to build on complementary indigenous knowledge systems.

The second TESF speaker was Dr Injairu Kulundu-Bolus, whose short talk emphasised how the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges including food security, access to water, and ongoing economic precarity. She also noted not it has also highlighted different dimensions of poverty, including the interconnected concepts of ‘poverty of trust’ and ‘poverty of connectedness’ relating to trust between the government and between communities, felt most starkly in the most unequal countries.

Injairu then went on to highlight how different community action networks have responded to these related concerns. For example, some have been hiding in plain sight, acting in meaningful ways despite a lack of government support such as community food kitchens which fulfilled a dire need particularly when the schools closed taking with them a vital source of nutrition for many children.

Injairu observed how the pandemic had raised many questions, such as how can you maintain proper hand-washing hygiene when water is scarce, what is needed next in order to adequately support communities, and how do we foster an embodied local engagement. She concluded by commenting on how the pandemic has created a space for young people to assert their futures and look beyond the paradigm of charity. The question of how to ‘build back better’ and foster social solidarity by rewiring our ways of working has a ready if incomplete answer in community action networks. These have rich potential to support deep reflection on which we can build to go forward.

The third speaker from the TESF network was Dr Michael Tusiime, who introduced two aspects of his work in Rwanda. Firstly his work with communities to identify the most vulnerable families who have not been able to access remote learning, and the measures taken to try and remedy this. He also highlighted the perpetual problem of ‘catching up’ and associated continued inequalities for these children, and how teachers’ capacity to provide remedial teaching when schools resume is of great concern.

Michael then went on to introduce his subsequent work which examines opportunities and challenges communities experience as they negotiate their children’s continuity of learning as they encounter wider issues surrounding sustainability. For example, how can existing local community structures be empowered to proactively support children’s learning during and post COVID-19? How best can they tap into the local resources they have? He concluded that it remains to be determined what is needed for education institutions to reopen safely for disadvantaged groups, and how inequalities can best be tackled.

The final TESF participant was Dr Rafael Mitchell. Due to time constraints he was unable to share his presentation during the webinar; however, it is available to view via the BPI website alongside recordings of all the presentations.


Ms Angeline Munzara, COVID-19 Aftershocks: Out of time

The final speaker was World Vision’s Angeline Munzara. Angeline began by highlighting how there has been a clear loss of income and reduced access to food for most vulnerable, and how this pandemic could reverse progress made towards the 2030 agenda and the SDGs irreversibly damaging lives. She introduced work from World Vision’s rapid assessment in 24 countries which suggests that millions of children will go hungry and be forced to beg. She gave examples of especially acute problems which have been observed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, how desert locusts have ruined crops in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, an increased risk of sexual violence against children, and how the resurgence of Ebola in some regions has complicated the response to COVID-19.

Angeline gave a stark warning that the basic right to provide needs of children is being inhibited; COVID-19 is curtailing caregivers’ ability to look after children. The world is also edging towards another global food crisis with rising food prices and a pronounced loss of income for many small businesses in Africa, and urgent action is required because this leaves the wellbeing of children at major risk, including a hugely increased incidence of child marriage.

In the final section of her presentation Angeline introduced World Vision’s key recommendations in response to these challenges, as shown in the below slide. She concluded that systemic, holistic, integrated approaches to economic recovery are required, and that it is crucial to understand how to learn from the pandemic to shape systems and deliver services to most vulnerable communities and children.

List of recommendations

Angeline’s presentation can be viewed in full via the BPI website, and she has also written a fantastic blog piece reflecting on the discussions in this webinar which is available via this link. The full World Vision report cited in this presentation is available on their website.


This webinar therefore covered a range of interesting and important topics, and also generated engaged discussion through the Q&A sections. Clearly COVID-19 is having wide ranging, complex, and devastating impacts on communities across the African continent and those in poverty will be disproportionally affected, exacerbating existing socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities. Hopefully by coming together and learning about different perspectives, approaches and challenges we can be better situated to individually and collectively make a positive impact. Both the Bristol Poverty Institute and Perivoli Africa Research Centre are keen to keep these discussions going, and to explore ways to tackle the challenges and inequalities exposed and exacerbated by this pandemic. We encourage participants – and blog readers – to get in touch if you are interested in future collaboration.

Contact details

Recordings of all presentations are available on the via the BPI website, alongside slides from presentations where speakers have given us permission to share these.

Authors: Lauren Winch (BPI) and Elliot James (PARC)

The impact of COVID-19 on children in Africa: a thorn in the flesh

Author: Angeline Munzara

Editor: Keetie Roelen


The children of Africa are bleeding

The COVID-19 outbreak is like a double-edged sword to a poor African child, piercing through bone and marrow. Even before the pandemic, children in sub-Saharan Africa were disproportionately affected by poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa has increasingly become a locus for extreme poverty and is home to 59% (413 million) of the world’s extreme poor. Experiences with other communicable diseases highlight their far-reaching negative consequences on lives and livelihoods. Countries such as Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo are still recovering from the socio-economic impacts of Ebola.  Analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP) about acute food insecurity in October shows that these countries are most affected.

Growing fears of repeat of history

Similar to Ebola, COVID-19 has had serious knock-on effects on household income. With few or no government social protection schemes in place, COVID-19 is putting children at risk of eating less food, having to beg, or in some cases, even to be married off early or drop out of school as parents and caregivers resort to negative coping mechanisms.

Studies increasingly reveal evidence of the economic impact of COVID-19. Vision Fund, the microfinance arm of World Vision, carried out rapid assessments on COVID-19 impacts among its 2400 microfinance clients in eight countries in Africa (DRC, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia) showing how 92% reported loss of income. Another rapid assessment was also carried out among savings for transformation refugees/host settlements groups in West Nile, Uganda with 47% of members facing reduced income and 10% percent having already sold productive assets.

What needs to be done? A Call to Action

Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) states that parent(s) or main caregivers have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capacities, the conditions that are necessary for the child’s development. COVID-19, however, is making it hard to fulfil these obligations. We are OUT OF TIME to address the impacts of COVID-19, and must act now. Without immediate action to protect people’s livelihoods now, the impact of this pandemic will reverse progress toward the post 2030 Agenda and irreparably damage the lives of current and future generations of children.

As we look into COVID-19 Recovery Responses, integrated and sustainable solutions are required. In helping families recover from the Ebola crisis, World Vision supported 42,000 small traders in Sierra Leone – almost 80% of whom were women – kick-start their businesses by providing small loans and grants to help members’ pool resources and fund their businesses. Through a combination of targeted cash transfers and financial literacy training, 302 savings groups were established (10,546 members with 6,373 females) including the first child savings group (known as ‘Destiny’) during 9 months of lockdown and school closures.

An analysis of the Women Empowered for Leadership and Development  in Sierra Leone shows how members used the earnings from the loans shows that 81.3% of beneficiaries used funds to pay school fees and buy learning materials, and 60% used the funds for medical expenses. The majority of loans provided for the basic needs of more than 40,000 children at a time when basic incomes were severely limited.

Based on these key learnings, governments, UN agencies, donors, NGOs, and the private sector must act together to:

  • Urgently scale up child sensitive social protection measures to help poor families meet immediate food, nutrition and income needs of children
  • Where school closures halted school meals programmes, ensure children continue to access food through such means as delivering food to homes.
  • Keep food and agriculture market systems functioning through prioritising the rapid analysis, response and adaptations to food and agricultural markets.
  • Protect jobs and livelihoods by providing funding to support Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), particularly, those led and owned by women to allow for faster economic recovery. Debt financing should allow flexible repayments and grace periods.
  • Invest in interventions promoting a green recovery and develop economic recovery interventions that integrate resilience to climate change and restore environmental assets central to food security, safety nets and natural resource-based livelihoods.

World Vision’s Response 

The wide range of COVID-19’s impacts require a multi-pronged response and strong partnerships to provide such a response. World Vision’s COVID-19 Emergency Response plan aims to directly support 72 million of the most vulnerable people and 36 million children in 70 countries. In some cases, this means plugging the gaps following discontinuation of services, such as reported by our teams in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC):

“Communities shared feedback about their children who used to benefit from school feeding, but are now going hungry as a result of school closures. World Vision and WFP listened and reached a consensus to provide food rations to families of 18,651 children in the Kasai region, who had already been registered and were benefitting from the programme before schools closed.

Elsewhere, World Vision is working on targeted programmes on nutrition-sensitive agriculture and  providing cash vouchers and food assistance to the most vulnerable children and their families, supporting savings groups with technical guidance and recovery support, working to analyse disrupted market systems to identify recovery strategies that both engage market forces and support the productive capacity of poor households, particularly smallholder farmers.  World Vision is also offering an integrated package of assistance, savings groups, training and assets (e.g., seeds, sewing machines, livestock, etc.) coupled with ongoing coaching support, to enable the most vulnerable families to escape the extreme poverty trap. Alongside this, we are collaborating with faith actors to train communities on Empowered World View, an approach that reaches deep into people’s core beliefs, transforming their view of the world so that the cycle of chronic poverty and hopelessness can be broken.

But over and above any interventions that can be offered, children and their families need to be able to find and hold onto hope that their present, painful circumstances can change.

This blog post was written by Angeline Munzara, who is Senior Advisor, Livelihoods External Engagement & Savings Groups, World Vision. It was originally published on the Poverty Unpacked blog by Keetie Roelen following the Bristol Poverty Institute  webinar on ‘The poverty and inequality dimensions of COVID-19 in Africa‘ that was held on 12 November 2020.

Photo credit: gitgitau_photography

“Now is literally the worst time in decades to be entering the work force”: the impact of COVID-19 on university students’ finances

By Katie Cross and Sara Davies

As students return to University campuses, the discussion has largely focused on worries over increased COVID-19 rates. But our survey of University of Bristol students suggests their approaching financial position should also be cause for concern. 

The economic impact of COVID-19 has been both rapid and widespread. By June, the economy was around 17% smaller than it had been in February. The sharp increase in Universal Credit claims after lockdown was unprecedented, with almost 2.5 million household claiming between mid-March and late June. And the Office for Budget Responsibility is projecting an unemployment rate of 11.9 per cent in Q4 of 2020. It is a very uncertain time for all.

But one group whose financial position we have heard less about during this time is that of university students. Each year we conduct a survey for the University of Bristol’s Widening Participation team to look at the impact bursaries have on students, comparing the financial experiences of those from low- and middle-income backgrounds who receive financial support from the University, with those from higher-income backgrounds[1], who do not. This year the timing of the survey allowed us to ask students about their financial experiences both pre- and post-COVID, and to look at how they may have fared during the crisis.

Financial impacts so far

As with the wider UK population, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown has had an unparalleled impact on student employment. Prior to the pandemic half of students surveyed (51 per cent) were employed in some form. Since the outbreak however, over two thirds of those previously working were no longer doing so, with a further 12 per cent working fewer hours than before. Of those no longer working, two thirds said this was due to their employer being closed (either temporarily or permanently). Although the majority of students receiving some form of maintenance loan, earned income is still important to students in order to manage financially, particularly among those who are not in receipt of a bursary, where this loss of income could be worryingly detrimental.

My maintenance loan does not even cover my rent which means I have to borrow money from family and work in order to cover my rent and food.”  – Year two, unfunded

Overall, the impact of coronavirus on the students we spoke to had been fairly evenly split across those finding it easier to manage financially (30 per cent), much the same (40 per cent) and harder to manage (30 per cent).

This means that, for the majority of students, COVID-19 had not had any major negative impact on their financial situation. Indeed, nearly half said they had been able to save money as their costs had generally reduced – a finding which is perhaps unsurprising as lockdown prevented social spending. A third also reported not having to pay for their final term of accommodation, representing a further considerable saving. This does, however, still leave 65 per cent of students paying for at least part, if not all, of their accommodation for the summer term, despite no physical teaching and (for the majority) returning home. Unsurprisingly the majority (95 per cent) of those who weren’t required to pay for their final term of accommodation were first year students (typically living in University owned halls), as opposed to second and third year students who were more likely to rent privately.

“No change at all despite the fact that our bills are included in rent so we are paying more for water, electricity etc that none of us are using (no one living there at the moment). When we contacted to ask for some reduction in rent, we were told that the property is the landlord’s primary source of income (seems an irrelevant argument) so we wouldn’t get any reduction.” – Year two, funded

Overall, 3 in 10 reported their costs and outgoings being harder to manage due to the outbreak. This rises to over half for mature students (who were more likely to have financial dependents) and around two-fifths for those who had lost income from employment.

Support from family

Many students rely on financial support from their families and friends to manage. Indeed, eligibility for bursaries and maintenance loans is based on parental household income from the previous tax year, and there is an expectation that those from higher-income households will receive support from their family. Almost two thirds of Bristol students who were ineligible for bursaries relied on support from family and friends, with 19 per cent having their accommodation paid for and 57 per cent receiving a set amount of money each week or month. Since the outbreak, a small number of (mainly non-bursary) students had received additional support from family or friends. Mature students were also more likely than younger students to have turned to family and friends for financial support since the lockdown, whereas beforehand they were significantly less likely to have done so.

However, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 – particularly once the furlough scheme comes to an end – may have dramatic impacts on family household income, and the worry is that students may fall through a gap, without university funding or family support.

“[I have] concern over lack of employment for my parents, who I rely on financially to pay for my living and accommodation in Bristol, as my maintenance loan was significantly lower than my accommodation cost.” – Year one, unfunded


While almost a third of students were currently finding it harder to manage financially, even more were worried about the coming academic year. Half were concerned over their lack of paid employment/income during the holidays or coming year and 41 per cent were worried about how they would manage financially in the Autumn term. Those who usually rely on paid work may run into financial difficulties, particularly if they are unable to return to work or find alternative employment. In our survey, over a third who worked considered employment income ‘very important’ to financially continuing at the University.

It is also important to consider the longer-term financial impact and job prospects for students. The unemployment rate is expected to rise to almost 12 per cent by the end of the year, and those who have recently left education are likely to be disproportionately affected. We are already seeing a reduction in job vacancies and in our survey 69 per cent reported being generally worried about their future, with nearly four in ten third-year students concerned over their post-graduate prospects since COVID-19.

Now is literally the worst time in decades to be entering the work force.” – Year three, funded

Given the general worry about the future, concern over personal and familial health, uncertainty around teaching in the coming year and reduced socialising with friends, it is unsurprising that some students also commented on the negative impacts on their mental health.

“Due to some of my family members being high at risk to corona, I am increasingly anxious as to what is going to happen to them. My mental health has suffered a lot from being very isolated over the Easter term. I am worried that the global economy is about to collapse and the whole world is going to go into recession. So all in all, quite a lot to be stressed about.” – Year one, funded

“My depression has got much worse, my father is at risk, I am struggling to focus at all so I am behind in all of my work and I don’t know how I will cope financially if I cannot work in the summer” – Year two, funded  

Overall, the student community has faced an unprecedented situation with remarkable resilience, but it is apparent that the challenges brought by COVID-19 will impact students for a long time to come. It is crucial that universities understand that, for some students at least, it will be much harder to manage financially than in previous years, and institutions therefore need to provide an appropriate level of practical and pastoral support to help them.

Firstly, we need greater recognition of how important earned income is to students’ financial position and participation at university. Secondly, the increased likelihood of financial difficulty among families of students should be considered, and the impact of this on students – both financially and emotionally – given the role that family support plays in getting by while at university. This suggests that there will be a need for a well-funded and accessible hardship fund in the coming years, because increased financial difficulties may well effect likelihood of withdrawal from studies.

Some students will need more help than others; previous surveys have found that bursaries appear to have some protective effect, therefore attention should also be given to those from higher-income households, particularly those just outside of eligibility, as they are more likely to rely on income from employment. Mature students, who we have previously found struggle financially more than their younger peers, are already turning to their families for support in greater numbers, but what about those who do not have people to turn to?

Finally, the ongoing emotional toil of dealing with a global crisis should not be underestimated. It is worrying enough leaving university in normal times, let alone doing so during a time of recession and increasing unemployment. Giving students as much support and guidance as possible, both to manage during their studies, and to help them to prosper as they leave, is going to be vital over the next few years.

[1] Low income = Residual Household Income (RHI)  > £25k; Mid income = RHI £25-44k; Higher income =RHI £43-80k

Capturing the value of community energy

Author: Colin Nolden, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Bristol Law School

Energise Sussex Coast and South East London Community Energy are set to benefit from a new business collaboration led by Colin Nolden and supported by PhD students Peter Thomas and Daniela Rossade. This is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council with match funding provided by Community Energy South from SGN. In total, £80,000 has been made available from the Economic and Social Research Council Impact Accelerator Account to launch six new Accelerating Business Collaborations involving the Universities of Bath, Exeter and Bristol. This funding aims to increase capacity and capability of early career researchers and PhD students to collaborate with the private sector. Match funding from SGN (formerly Scotia Gas Network) provided by Community Energy South for this particular project will free up time and allow Energise Sussex Coast and South East London Community Energy to provide the necessary company data and co-develop appropriate data analysis and management methodologies.

The Capturing the value of community energy project evolved out of the Bristol Poverty Institute (BPI) interdisciplinary webinar on Energy and Fuel Poverty and Sustainable Solutions on 14 May 2020. At this event Colin highlighted the difficulty of establishing self-sustaining fuel-poverty alleviation business models, despite huge savings on energy bills and invaluable support for some of the most marginalised segments of society. Peter also presented his PhD project, which investigates the energy needs and priorities of refugee communities. With the help of Ruth Welters from Research and Enterprise Development and Lauren Winch from BPI, Colin built up his team and concretised his project for this successful grant application.

The two business collaborators Energise Sussex Coast (ESC) and South East London Community Energy (SELCE) are non-profit social enterprises that seek to act co-operatively to tackle the climate crisis and energy injustice through community owned renewable energy and energy savings schemes. Both have won multiple awards for their approach to energy generation, energy saving and fuel poverty alleviation.

Infographic from South East London Community Energy

However, both are also highly dependent on grants from energy companies such as SGN with complicated and highly variable reporting procedures. This business collaboration will involve the analysis of their company data (eight years for ESC, ten years for SELCE) to take stock of what fuel poverty advice and energy saving action works and what does not, and to grasp any multiplier effects associated with engaging in renewable energy trading activities alongside more charitable fuel poverty alleviation work.

Benefits for ESC and SELCE include the co-production of a database to help them establish what has and has not worked in the past, and where to target their efforts moving forward. This is particularly relevant in the context of future fuel-poverty alleviation funding bids. With a better understanding of what works, they will be able to write better bids and target their advice more effectively, thus improving the efficiency of the sector more broadly.

It will also help identify new value streams, such as those resulting from lower energy bills. Rather than creating dependents, this provides the foundation for business model innovation through consortium building and economies of scale where possible, while improving targeted face-to-face advice where necessary. It will also explore socially distant approaches where face-to-face advice and engagement is no longer possible.

With a better understanding how and where value is created, ESC and SLECE, together with other non-profit enterprises, can establish a platform cooperative while creating self-renewing databases which enable more targeted energy saving and fuel poverty advice in future. Such data also facilitates application for larger pots of money such as Horizon2020, and the establishment of a fuel poverty ecosystem in partnership with local authorities and other organisations capable of empowering people instead of creating dependents. This additional reporting will capture a wider range of value and codify it to be submitted as written evidence to the Cabinet Office and Treasury at national level, while also acting as a dynamic database for inclusive economy institutions and community energy organisations at regional and local level.


Dr Colin Nolden is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow based on the Law School, University of Bristol, researching sustainable energy governance at the intersection of demand, mobility, communities, and climate change. Alongside his appointment at the University of Bristol, Colin works as a Researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. He is also a non-executive director of Community Energy South.

Peter Thomas is a University of Bristol Engineering PhD student investigating access to energy in humanitarian relief by combining insights from engineering, social sciences, and anthropology.

Daniela Rossade is a University of Bristol Engineering PhD student investigating the transition to renewable energy on the remote island of Saint Helena and the influence of renewable microgrids on electricity access and energy poverty.

Partner Companies


For more information on the project contact: Dr Colin Nolden