From January 2020 until recently, COVID-19 dominated international headlines and our thoughts. Europe and Central Asia were severely hit by COVID-19, facing among the highest excess death rates in the world.
A new global report titled Collapse & Recovery: How COVID-19 Eroded Human Capital and What to Do About It shows that the pandemic dealt a massive setback to the human capital of people under the age of 25 – the generation that will make up the majority of the workforce in 2050. Millions of children lost access to health care and experienced more stress in their care environments. Higher levels of orphanhood, domestic violence, and suboptimal nutrition led to declines in school readiness and socioemotional development. Preschool-age children in multiple countries suffered losses in their early language, literacy, and math learning. School closures and ineffective remote learning caused students to miss out on learning and to also forget what they had learned. Moreover, in many countries a quarter of all young people were neither in education, employment nor vocational training in 2021.
Many of these devastating trends have also affected the Europe and Central Asia region. Data collected by Patrinos, Vegas and Carter-Rau show a clear relationship between school closures and learning losses, which, for many countries in Europe and Central Asia, amounted to up to a year of learning – equivalent to 8% of their future lifetime income.
The data masks even more dramatic learning losses among children from low-income families, many of whom faced dismal learning environments at home. The impacts on health have not yet been fully documented in the region, but high instances of deferring of treatment to a later time and lower use of health services point towards deteriorating health conditions, especially for people suffering from non-communicable diseases.
And while the pandemic has inflicted long-lasting damage to people’s human capital, the region quickly had to address a new wave of major crises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the resulting energy, food, and inflation crises, and now the earthquake in Türkiye require immediate actions.
Yet, we should not forget about the long-lasting impacts that COVID-19 and new crises are having on human capital.If no action is taken, the slow but steady degradation of people’s human capital – in particular that of young people – will inflict a substantial blow to countries’ abilities to grow and prosper.
Fortunately, much can be done to help youth close their human capital gaps – and the European Union experience provides valuable lessons. The COVID-19 response in Denmark and France, for instance, shows that by implementing learning assessments to identify lagging students and then intervening, learning losses can be mitigated. Moreover, a forthcoming World Bank report on human development in the Europe and Central Asia region shows that resilience and long-term development are complementary: systems that provide better quality services in normal times have to a large extent better capacity to respond to crises. Many reforms, with minor twists, can therefore support both long-term development outcomes and greater resilience of human development systems.
Going forward, we will have to strike a balance between boosting countries’ resilience, helping them address recurrent crises, and supporting their long-term development. In so doing, we must remember that crises often last much longer than their initial causes. If we work towards closing crisis-induced human capital gaps, we can positively affect the prosperity of our youth and the economies in which they live for generations to come.