The year 2020 has started with COVID-19 pandemic becoming the most severe human health crisis in a century, and this has quickly turned into the biggest economic crisis since the Second World War. The depth and reach of this crisis has exposed once again existing inequalities in our economies and societies and risks further widening them. Older people and many people with disabilities are facing elevated COVID-19 health risks, but, in many countries, ethnic minorities are also disproportionately more likely to die than the majority population. The disease is also affecting disproportionally migrants, partly because they have restricted access to health care, but also because they may live and work in conditions where social distancing is hard to enforce. A further reason, common to many different social minorities, is that a lifetime of disadvantage and low social status, leaves them more vulnerable to disease than mainstream groups.

Minority groups are often in more unstable and vulnerable positions in the labour market and the current COVID-19 crisis has hit them disproportionally hard. When in employment, they often hold more precarious and unstable jobs, which often give weaker or no access to social protection compared to those offered by standard jobs during the crisis. A disproportionate share of women and migrants, in particular, are also employed in sectors that have been either on the front line – like health care sector – exposing them to the associated risks of contracting the virus, or particularly hard-hit by the strict confinement measures, like hotel and restaurants.

This report was prepared before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it addresses many of the issues the disease has laid bare. Indeed, with COVID-19, there is a real risk that the significant progress obtained over the past decade in promoting a fuller role in labour markets and society of diverse groups will be at least partially lost. We cannot afford to let this happen. Moreover, since this report was prepared, the death of George Floyd and the global “Black Lives Matter” movement have placed at the centre of the policy debate long-standing issues of persistent discrimination and disadvantage against ethnic minorities into the limelight. The report also addresses these issues.

A number of lessons can be drawn from the analysis in this report that are particularly relevant in the current unprecedented crisis. A first key lesson is that excluding diverse populations from the labour market comes at a high economic and social cost that countries can ill afford – especially in such challenging times. While there are strong societal and macroeconomic benefits of including diverse groups, action towards greater inclusion of diverse groups cannot be left only to individual businesses. As many businesses are struggling and layoffs increase, we need to make sure that the incentives for fair and equal treatment for all are well set. Evidence suggests that discrimination becomes more pronounced when unemployment rises.

A second key lesson is that there is a need to continuously monitor the evolving situation for diverse groups. Only if facts are fully at hand, it is possible for policy makers and other key stakeholders to adequately react. It is also important to look at ‘intersectionality’ (when people are part of multiple minority groups), to make sure that the most vulnerable are not neglected.

A third core lesson of our report is that effective mainstreaming of diversity requires a “diversity lens” by which the impact of policy measures on diverse groups is considered prior to implementation. As countries design and implement policies to cope with the crisis, and to create a better ‘new normal’, their impact on diverse groups needs to be assessed up front.

While the immediate priority during the pandemic was, and still is, to contain the spread of the virus and save lives, policy makers are now also facing the daunting challenge of managing the economic recovery from a deep recession to avoid massive unemployment and increases in poverty and exclusion. Managing the recovery requires a focus on diverse groups so as to avoid further inequalities and instead better exploiting the full potential of a more diverse and equal economy and society so as to make them more resilient. Getting the most out of our increasingly diverse societies is not a fair weather issue, it is, on the contrary, now more essential than ever.


Stefano Scarpetta Director for Employment,

Labour and Social Affairs Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

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