Decades Of Human Progress Set Back By Covid, Climate Change And Ukraine War, UN Warns

Author image

Robert Hart   Forbes U.S. Staff

Decades Of Human Progress Set Back By Covid, Climate Change And Ukraine War, UN Warns


Global crises like the Covid-19 pandemic, worsening climate change and the war in Ukraine have started to reverse decades of human progress in education, life expectancy and standards of living around the world, the United Nations warned in a report published Thursday, with the last two years having erased years of gains with little sign of improvement on the horizon.

Key Facts

Unprecedented back-to-back crises over the last two years, primarily the Covid-19 pandemic, has set human progress back five years, the UN Development Program (UNDP) said.

The matter is a global issue, the UNDP stressed, with nine out of 10 countries moving backwards on the UN’s Human Development Index—a broad measure of countries’ standards of living, education levels and life expectancy designed to assess well-being alongside economic factors like GDP—over the last two years.

The Index fell globally in both 2020 and 2021, the UNDP said, marking the first time the value has declined for two years straight since the organization launched it more than 30 years ago.

Overall, the past two years have erased five years of progress and pushed human development back to 2016 levels, the UNDP said.

Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have been hit particularly hard, the UNDP said, warning that while some countries have started to recover, progress is uneven and the crisis is still deepening for many nations.

Switzerland, Norway and Iceland hold the top spots on the Index this year—the U.S. holds the 21st spot—and Niger, Chad and South Sudan sit at the bottom.

Key Background

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a key driver of instability over the past two years, magnified by worsening consequences of climate change that makes extreme weather events and disasters like flooding, drought and storms more likely. Disruption from the pandemic has been broad, obviously affecting life expectancy through deaths from the virus and other health disruptions but also closing schools, workplaces and shutting vast swathes of the economy. It slashed life expectancy in all but a handful of countries and U.S. life expectancy has dropped for two years running. Missed classroom time and other disruptions also pushed U.S. reading levels back two decades, according to a National assessment of Educational Progress report. Data suggests disruption impacted Black, Hispanic and multiracial students more than white students, and access to technology spurred further divides as many schools switched to remote learning.

What To Watch For

The report does not expand on the effects of the war in Ukraine, though it does say it is causing “immense human suffering.” When quantified, this impact is likely to be sizable. Both Russia and Ukraine are agricultural powerhouses and major exporters of grain and other food products. Russia is also one of the world’s biggest fertilizer exporters. The war has disrupted these supplies, sending food prices spiraling and threatening millions with starvation. Russia is also one of the world’s biggest energy exporters, sparking an energy crisis as prices skyrocket. “The outlook for 2022 is grim,” UNDP chief Achim Steiner said in an interview. “We are seeing deep disruptions, the tail end of which will play out over a number of years.”

Author image

Robert Hart   Forbes U.S. Staff

I am a London-based reporter for Forbes covering breaking news. Previously, I have worked as a reporter for a specialist legal publication covering big data and as a freelance journalist and policy analyst covering science, tech and health. I have a master’s degree in Biological Natural Sciences and a master’s degree in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge.