Two Years On: Measuring the Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Naomi Simon-Kumar, Tatjana Buklijas and Kristiann Allen from INGSA (the International Network for Government Science Advice), with additions from Thomas Hale of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University.

The world began to measure the impact of the pandemic almost as soon as it began. Authorities collected data on cases and deaths, hospital bed use and vaccination rates.

Trackers were established to collate international data on everything from the strictness of ‘lockdown’ policies, to other health and economic government interventions.

For example, the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) has been gathering global data on government policies on COVID-19 since January 1, 2020.

From that we can see that while nearly all countries employed stringent restrictions in the first months of the pandemic, policy responses have since diverged.

As countries find their way toward a “new normal,” countries are increasingly targeting restrictions at non-vaccinated people.

  • 107 countries have imposed tighter rules on unvaccinated people than on vaccinated people.
  • Countries have also begun to mandate vaccination for certain groups or, in some cases, for the population overall.
  • The most common groups to be targeted by vaccine mandates across countries are healthcare workers, care home residents and staff, and the elderly and vulnerable.

To read the full findings of this research, click here.

But What More Do We Need to Know?

In March 2022, IPPO commissioned the the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) to look at what indicators could tell us more about the reasons for the differential pandemic impact around the world and diversity in governmental responses.

Standard coincident economic indicators such as GDP and employment levels go some way but are limited. In the U.S the high price of labour, high employment, yet high inflation, led to the disagreement among commentators about whether the economy is in good or bad shape.

INGSA has drawn on a selection of existing studies measuring a selection of economic, social and political indicators, to understand which indicators seem the most promising and may be worth tracking internationally.

While broader health indicators such as life expectancy are of interest, they were beyond the remit of this research. In addition, many of the existing studies are based on data collected during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 and offer projections for 2021 and 2022.


The effects of the pandemic risk rolling back progress made in reducing global income inequality over the last twenty years.

Indices that measure income distribution and inequality within and between groups, increased between 2019 and 2020 and are projected to have increased again in 2021 – returning to levels from a decade ago.

Increase in between and within-country inequality

Global income inequality looks to rise further. Low income countries have had a comparatively slower recovery than high-income ones, caused by limited vaccine access, as well as weak governance and policy responsiveness.

Overall, LMIC countries have less available funds for fiscal support measures, which has made them more vulnerable to the global economic turbulence resulting from the pandemic and slowed recovery. In 2020 advanced economies spent 23.1 percent of GDP on discretionary fiscal measures, compared with emerging economies’ 9.9 percent of a smaller GDP. As a result, LMIC countries have undergone more sustained economic contractions compared to their high-income counterparts, despite high income countries facing larger economic contractions, with fewer financial support measures targeting businesses and households over the same period.

Decline In Human Development For The Future Time

Globally, human development index (UDI) values have declined over the course of the pandemic, for the first time since 1990. This index was set up to assess the development of a country by not economic growth alone, including factors such as a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.

The drop reflected labour displacement and other economic shocks impacting social life.

Many high HDI countries across Europe and North America performed comparatively worse in dealing with the health burden of the pandemic during the initial outbreaks in 2020. The immediate burden of covid-19 mortality was significantly higher for higher income countries globally, with loss in life years positively correlated with national income per capita.

Better Funded Healthcare Systems Did Better

Prior to the pandemic, health systems worldwide were already approaching their resourcing limit, and health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were not projected to be achieved by 2030.

Well-funded healthcare systems appear to be more resilient to the impacts of the pandemic, and better equipped to deal with the monitoring and treatment of covid patients without compromising other health needs in the population.

In a study of a range of low, middle and high income countries, health expenditure as a percentage of GDP was found to be negatively associated with excess mortality.

Among OECD countries, a higher staffing rate in the long term care sector, where over 40% of deaths was concentrated during the early stages of the pandemic, was strongly associated with lower infection and death rates.

Crucially, the gap in healthcare capabilities between countries has continued to widen over the past decade, particularly impacting the ability of developing countries to manage communicable disease crises and deliver public health services, compared to developed nations. Low HDI countries face significant resource constraint issues, only able to provide 0.2 physicians per 1,000 people, compared to 3.1 in very high HDI countries.

Healthcare Models Affected Pandemic Impact

The largely privatised healthcare systems with limited healthcare access were associated with significantly higher rates of excess mortality. Overall, countries with stronger, more rapid systems of epidemiological surveillance, including well-developed testing, tracing and isolation measures, have been more effective in limiting widespread transmission and excess deaths. High-income countries have more robust health information systems, crucial for monitoring populations and health risks related to covid-19. Health information systems are part of broader capacity to enable data use for policy and action.

Labour Disruption Worsened Global Social And Economic Inequalities

Many OECD countries introduced various wage subsidy schemes, tax credits and grants to protect workers during the pandemic. While income support policies may have mitigated income and employment loss in the short-term globally, they may not have been sufficient to effectively reduce rates of poverty across countries.

In one recent assessment undertaken by UNDP, an analysis of income-support programmes in 41 countries suggested that they may have prevented, at least temporarily, the overall increase in poverty in upper-middle income countries but may have been insufficient to mitigate the increase in poverty at any poverty line in low income countries.

Income support was estimated to have mitigated 60 percent of the increase in poverty at the $3.20 a day threshold and 20 percent at the $5.50 a day threshold among lower-middle-income countries.

Yet since 2021, many countries have begun progressively phasing out worker assistance programs.

In its most recent employment outlook, the OECD highlights the significant social and economic inequalities that risk progressing an inclusive global economic recovery.

The economic burden of the pandemic continues to fall disproportionately on already marginalised groups: across countries, women, mothers, immigrants and those belonging to racial/ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ communities were more likely to lose employment and face financial insecurity, with the effects often compounded for individuals belonging to multiple risk categories.

This is consistent with global evidence around the gender gap in labour market outcomes as a result of the pandemic, with more women having lost employment or experiencing massive reductions in income compared to men, due to disproportionate impacts on sectors with high female employment and increased demands for unpaid childcare.

Furthermore, immigrants and people belonging to racial/ethnic minorities were generally first to lose their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic and were also less likely to be placed on job retention schemes. OECD data also indicates that these groups are being held back from making employment gains as countries move into a period of economic recovery, with proportionately fewer minorities recovering their pre-pandemic jobs compared to the general population.

Major Education Losses

The impact of school closures and disruptions to learning have resulted in major education losses, greater for students from poorer and less educated families. UNDP data estimates that the “effective out-of-school rate” – the percentage of primary school-age children, adjusted to reflect those without Internet access – has significantly increased since the start of the pandemic, with around 60 per cent of children losing out on learning.

School age children from high income countries and higher income backgrounds are better equipped to alleviate learning losses due to factors including better digital access and connectivity and parental support both in terms of time and skills. Within countries, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are most at risk: education losses for more disadvantaged students are estimated to exceed 50 percent in emerging economies and 40 percent in low-income countries, compared with less than 20 percent in advanced economies.

Mental Health Crisis

Global findings also suggest that a mental health crisis driven by the pandemic risks compromising economic recovery in developed countries. The prevalence of mental health conditions in developed countries has remained relatively static over the last thirty years, however, since March 2020 rates of anxiety and depression have seen a sharp rise.

Schemes aimed at employee retention also supported the mental health of workers during periods of economic uncertainty, yet are now being phased out (see above).