We have become accustomed to reiterating the disruptions that the Covid-19 pandemic has imposed on our lives — such as decreased movement, cessation of normal social relationships, domestic violence, financial duress, mental health issues, and rising poverty and inequality.

Our simulations, run a year ago, found that 131m to 547m people, globally, may have joined the ranks of the “newly impoverished”, potentially rolling back years of progress. As we look towards the future, if the subject of poverty arises, we may wish to look away.

But what if that were not the case? What if strategic action by Global Britain nudged the trajectory?

In December 2013, the UK led the international response when Ebola struck Sierra Leone — working alongside partners to end the outbreak swiftly, while training medical workers and supporting early recovery in health, education, and social protection. The worst-case scenario was averted and, in March 2016, Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free.

The poverty impacts of that Ebola response then became visible in 2020, when our team’s research — funded by the UK’s then Department for International Development — showed trends in multidimensional poverty reduction. We found that, during the Ebola pandemic and response, multidimensional poverty rates in Sierra Leone fell from 74 per cent to 58 per cent — the fastest reduction for any country. Between 2013 and 2017, the dreaded burden of poverty did not rise; it fell, sharply.

More recently, the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2020 report showed that, prior to the Covid pandemic, 65 out of 75 countries studied — accounting for 5bn people — had achieved a significant reduction in acute multidimensional poverty. This is defined as households experiencing multiple deprivations, such as undernutrition, child mortality, lack of schooling, inadequate sanitation, unsafe water, no electricity, ramshackle housing, and so on.

A medical worker feeds a child diagnosed with Ebola virus, in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

So, even as we approach 18 months of the current Covid-19 pandemic, and it seems daunting to countenance poverty-reduction on a scale similar to Sierra Leone’s, it may be possible.

As the pandemic has rolled out and evolved, country after country has pivoted to invest in social protection, health systems, job creation, and economic stimulus measures to build back better. This year, the UK also has a leading voice at the G7, G20, COP26, Global Education, and Food Systems and Nutrition for Growth summits.

What if it used that voice to consolidate a new paradigm, based on cutting edge research and data, and created a new legacy of deft humility and understated collaboration?

Based on the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) — established with UK support and covering 5.9bn people — there are clear points for action that might make this year a turning point towards ending acute poverty in all its forms:

We have the data and we know the framework for a strategy to meet global poverty reduction goals. That strategy requires international co-operation, shared commitment and global leadership. The pandemic need not reverse the great progress that has been made in recent decades in overcoming poverty. On the contrary, it could be a driver, a wake-up call, the basis for a new determination to build a better world for today’s children and tomorrow’s generations. This 2021 year of summits, and the UK’s key global role, offers the platform to seize that opportunity as a central part of the Global Britain vision.

Sabina Alkire directs the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford

Read her full essay on the Unicef website, here