COVID-19 has increased inequality and aggravated social problems across emerging market economies, fueling populist pressures—but several emerging countries share features that make them particularly vulnerable. Assessing key environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics can help identify potential pressure points.

Crisis can be fertile ground for populism. The unique characteristics of COVID-19 may have stifled unrest initially, but the pandemic has exacerbated inequality and poverty, which could fuel public discontent, impacting political and policy paths. It has also given a double edge to the youthful nature of many emerging countries. A young demographic profile is normally a positive for economic growth but could pose challenges if the pandemic curtails business activity and permanently increases unemployment.

Political and policy shifts are arguably more likely in countries where socioeconomic conditions are more fragile and where COVID-19 scarring is deeper. But the resulting pressure for change could lead to contagion, pushing politicians across emerging markets to pursue populist policies, delay fiscal consolidation, and/or erode democratic standards.