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Human Development &
Capability Association

Agency, Well-Being and Justice

COVID-19 Reflections: A Global Capability Crisis

by Paul Anand

Fellow, Human Development & Capability Association

Oxford, UK

The global crisis caused by COVID 19 has been described as a twin pandemic for health and the economy and of course it is surely both but also much more. First and foremost, it is a humanitarian crisis for millions and possibly billions of people around the world whose livelihoods are at risk or have disappeared. But unlike previous global health crises, it offers an existential threat to whole sectors of economies around the world and the prospect of a global recession that could last for many years. It may and should also be an opportunity for the world to reassess the freedoms we should value and the steps we need to make development truly sustainable and inclusive but in either case, the themes of the capability approach (Nussbaum and Sen (1993), Anand and Piketty (2011)) provide a rich source of ideas on which researchers and policy-makers can draw. What consumers and workers can do has been subject to a tremendous and not previously experienced shock with difficult to imagine consequences in every aspect of life as experience in my own country illustrates.

In terms of health, for instance, apart from the obvious increase in mortality rates, the massive diversion of health-care resources towards the treatment of COVID 19 patients has resulted in the postponement of less urgent health-care which will certainly bring about further avoidable deaths. Furthermore, the ability of frontline workers to do their jobs has been jeopardised by shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the mental health of many will suffer long-term impacts particularly if they do not have access to adequate counselling now. And in terms of education, state school closures mean that students' education will suffer while the cancellation of end of year exams will give rise to biases brought about by using proxy methods. Further private schools in many cases have been able to continue while well educated parents are better able to assist children through home schooling than others so inequalities based on educational attainment are likely to be exaggerated unless policies find ways to take such factors into account.

A raft of fiscal policies have been introduced to protect workers though they are novel and are taking time to work. Support for businesses through the provision of loans have been hampered by the fact that the uncertainty means commercial banks have been reluctant to underwrite many of the applications. In the UK and some other European countries, generous short-term employment subsidies have been introduced allowing companies to send workers home while continuing to pay them. However, it has taken additional time to develop policies covering the diverse pool of self-employed workers and those in the gig economy on zero hours contracts. Some measures are taking longer than others to implement although particularly for those with least savings consequences can be nearly immediate.

When it comes to food, initial responses by consumers preparing for the worst have led to temporary shortages of certain items in shops even though retailers claimed that there were adequate stocks in their supply chains. To protect vulnerable shoppers, many retailers, possibly in consultation with central government, have instituted particular times when older people or frontline workers can shop. Some households with children on free school meals or suffering from unemployment have had to resort to food banks in the UK – while at the same time, such banks report a drying up of financial donations and even theft of food forcing some to close their operations.

There have also been concerns about gender equity and marginalised groups. Typically, women predominate in low paid part time jobs which are disproportionally cut in times of recession but furthermore, stay-at-home orders are causing concern that there will be a spike in cases of domestic violence.

In short, the global crisis touches all the key dimensions of life quality, highlights the fact that people will be resilient to very different degrees and calls for political leaders with the wisdom (Heckman and Corbin (2016)) to balance incommensurable but competing demands, consult widely with all groups within society, to not ignore those with no voice, and to address populations with credibility, respect and concern. Different strategies will be needed in countries where health systems are meagre and material deprivation is extensive but I hope that colleagues from our global community will draw on the capability approach to address the array of urgent policy and research questions that COVID 19 now poses while contributing also to the longer term re-evaluations of global human progress now needed.


Anand, P. and Piketty, T. eds., (2011) New Directions in the Economics of Welfare: Special Issue Celebrating Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's 75th Birthday, Journal of Public Economics, Volume 95, Issues 3-4

Heckman, J.J. and Corbin, C.O., 2016. Capabilities and Skills. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 17(3), pp.342-359.

Nussbaum, M., Sen, A. and Sen, M.A. eds., 1993. The Quality of Life. Oxford University Press.

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