How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected urban poverty?


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Written by Benigna Boza-Kiss, Shonali Pachauri and Caroline Zimm of the IIASA Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group

Benigna Boza-Kiss, Shonali Pachauri and Caroline Zimm explain how COVID-19 has affected the urban poor and what can be done to increase the resilience of the vulnerable population in the future.

© Manoej Paateel |

The COVID-19 pandemic stopped life as we knew it. We were restrained in our activities and freedoms, forced to stay at home, cancel travel plans and move appointments to the internet space, where most of us also celebrated birthdays and other important life events that were supposed to be in person with our loved ones. These changes have affected many aspects of our comfort, our social well-being, as well as our financial situation, but they have also brought existing inequalities and poverty into the spotlight.

The danger of a pandemic and restrictions following control measures were most strongly felt by the poor, the vulnerable, those in the informal sector and those without savings and safety nets. The suffering of women in the health sector, school children in households without electricity and internet, workers in the informal sector who do not have the ability to work remotely, crowds living in slums – to name just a few examples of vulnerable groups – have become astonishingly visible to all. These people had to adjust to the new rules and conditions while living on the edge even before the pandemic.

In a new promising article published in a journal Borders in sustainable cities, we explored how aspects related to shelters / housing, modern energy and digital services in cities have affected the poor and what can be done to increase the resilience of the vulnerable population in the future.

We described three ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic and related control measures exacerbated urban inequalities, and identified how subsequent recovery measures and policy responses could address this.

First, quarantines have exacerbated the city’s energy poverty. Staying at home meant increased energy consumption at home. For the poor, who are already struggling with utility costs and usually live in low-energy buildings, these services have become even more inaccessible. These populations also carry a higher burden of poor health, for example, a higher incidence of respiratory problems, with poor or inadequate ventilation and isolation, which further increases the risk of infection.

Second, pre-existing digital divisions have emerged, even within well-connected cities. Several barriers limit digital inclusion: access to digital technologies due to high costs (for devices, internet access and electricity connections) and unreliable services (again for electricity and internet), as well as low digital literacy and support. This lack of adequate access to digital services contributes to these populations lagging behind during quarantine because they miss education and income.

Third, the inhabitants of slums in the world’s cities were particularly hard hit by precarious and overcrowded housing conditions, lack of basic infrastructure and amenities, and high concentrations of the socio-economically vulnerable, resulting in even more negative consequences of closure measures. Given that many slum dwellers work in the informal sector, many have been left either without jobs and income, or forced to work in precarious and precarious conditions in order to survive. The loss of income has also had strong effects, making it difficult to pay regular expenses for rent, water, electricity and other utilities. Women in these settlements are disproportionately affected by the pandemic because they are overrepresented in the informal economy, and are more likely to engage in invisible jobs, such as housework or in-house and nursing jobs.

Recovery measures must provide immediate relief, but also point to long-term solutions that contribute to wealth redistribution and new urban development, while increasing resilience to current and future pandemics or other disasters. There are proven measures that need to be re-emphasized.

The city’s green recovery plans that include major home renovation programs could provide warm, healthy homes and affordable energy bills for all. In the short term, the mitigation of arrears of arrears and utility bills for the energy poor should continue. At the same time, attention needs to be paid to the city’s digital preparedness, more equal access to the virtual delivery of basic services and the provision of opportunities for virtual work and education for all in the future.

COVID-19 can be a wake-up call to increase efforts to close the digital divide and drive structural change. The crisis has increased the urgency of redesigning and improving informal settlements and providing appropriate and efficient services to meet the different needs of poor urban dwellers. This requires partnerships between city councils, planners and stakeholders, as well as strengthening local communities for inclusive planning strategies. There is an immediate need to provide direct support to slums and informal settlements in terms of income support, adequate nutrition, energy, water and other basic infrastructure and services.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic was a “test of societies, governments, communities and individuals.” Digital technologies, home reconstruction and rehabilitation of slums are rather a means of improving conditions for all, but if they are specifically targeted at the poor and most vulnerable, such measures can reduce inequalities and increase resilience.


Boza-Kiss, B.,, Pachauri, S., & Zimm, C. (2021). Deprivations and inequalities in cities observed through a pandemic lens. Borders in sustainable cities 3 e645914. []

Note: This article presents the views of the authors, not the views of the Nexus Blog or the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

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