The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health crisis yet its effects are not felt equally aross the world or throughout societies. Shannon Maree Torrens shows us how inequalities are having particularly devastating effect at this time, and makes the case for urgent change in national and international governance.
Local and Global Inequality No Longer Possible to Ignore
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 states that: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ The UDHR, in addition to core international human rights treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) further recognise the ‘inherent dignity’ and ‘equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. And yet in practice, this is not always the case.
COVID-19 has presented to the world one of our greatest and most longstanding transgression as human beings towards one another in the form of explicit inequality. This inequality is not new, it is corrosively pre-existing and long standing. Over the past seventy years, there have been innumerable declarations of the value of equality and the need to protect the welfare and rights of all people, by both the international community but also domestically by national governments, however COVID-19 is illustrating that this communicated desire for equality is far more show than action.
Despite the fact that anyone can conceivably contract COVID-19 and both the wealthy and the poor have been and can be infected and affected, it is the poor and also racial minorities who are at much greater risk of contracting the disease, who face the greatest difficulties in responding to the disease and who will have the greatest challenges dealing with the health and economic after-effects that will continue once the pandemic has hopefully subsided.
As we watch the gurneys move in and out of hospitals around the world and imagine those who did not make it to the hospital at all – if there is even a hospital nearby, the repercussions of deeply entrenched inequality at both the international and local levels are in much sharper focus, not only in one country or one place, but everywhere. We are seeing inequality not only between countries and groups of people, with some more able than others to respond to the disease, but also domestic inequalities within even the wealthiest of nations which are now impossible to ignore. We are seeing the skeletons in the closet appear, skeletons that we know about, but do not want to see, where a shiny front of democracy and protestations of equality are actually hiding a litany of social issues affecting the most vulnerable.
Prior to COVID-19, inequality was of course framed as a concern by governments and political leaders, particularly when they wanted to be voted into office, but that problem was seemingly not pressing enough for governments to make the policy and economic decisions necessary to alleviate or effectively respond to socioeconomic and racial inequality and the associated health ramifications, nor for people to elect leaders who prioritise responding to the most disenfranchised members of our respective countries and our global community, at least not in any real way. It was not important or pressing enough for governments to protect their own citizens against inequality, nor those in underprivileged states around the world.
Today the inequality and fragility of those who are in situations where they must live with no or inadequate healthcare and low or non-existent income exacerbates the impact of COVID-19 on those people – whether or not they actually contract the disease. In particular, this pandemic is revealing, or at the very least reminding the world of the inequality that exists in the quality of and access to medical care. In the US, a world superpower and country that has spent trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East since September 11, 2001, we have seen the government struggle to contain the disease, alongside an inability to respond to the needs of its most vulnerable people due to the buckling of its overburdened hospitals and health care infrastructure.
In New York City, home to over eight million people, the capital city of the world, the post codes with the highest rates of COVID-19, are also the most disenfranchised, underprivileged areas of the city. Furthermore, the most affected individuals comprise the black and Hispanic populations of the city – who are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white and Asian people. This is no coincidence.
The vulnerability of racial minorities to this pandemic is replicated in other US cities and in other countries around the world. In Chicago, 72 per cent of COVID-19 deaths are in the black community, despite those people comprising less than one third of the entire city’s population. This is an unflinching reminder of the corrosive underlying inequality that can exist in a country such as the US, which prides itself on democracy, diversity and freedom for all, with its most vulnerable minority groups now most affected by the pandemic. This inequality is however not just an issue with the US, it is a global issue.
There is currently a significant disparity all over the world between those who have the privilege of being able to stay home and quarantine or self-isolate in safety and those who must still go out into the community to work and thus put themselves and their families at risk of infection. These people often have no other option other than to do so or else they will lose their jobs and thus their incomes and potentially homes. This reflects a splintering of the community into two – a division that was always in existence but not fully acknowledged.
Both those people from lower socioeconomic groups and also racial minorities are more likely to work in frontline jobs, which increases their exposure to the disease – professions such as medical personnel, transportation operators including train and bus drivers, cleaners, garbage collectors and supermarket workers. These people who have long existed with low pay must still go to work to enable the entire community to function, while those with more flexible and often higher paying jobs have the luxury of staying home. This reflects the inequality inherent in the societies in which we live, which is often explained away as being a normal state of affairs or something that should be accepted as an unfortunate but expected part of society.
Further in terms of vulnerability, those in underprivileged communities including minorities are also more likely to have pre-existing health issues due to inadequate health care and food insecurity. They may also be more unlikely to access health care even during this pandemic due to long term disengagement from the medical systems in the countries where they live but yet cannot normally afford treatment. Again, this renders these people more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Then there are the homeless and housing insecure who are told to self-isolate despite the impossibility and those living in poor-quality and crowded housing conditions with multiple generations and at times multiple families and friends cramped within the same house. The disease is far more likely to spread amongst family members and housemates in these situations.
Those from lower socioeconomic groups are also less likely to own a car and thus use public transport, which in many places has been reduced in frequency, again rendering these people more vulnerable to infection through being in close quarters with others of a similar socioeconomic status and vulnerability. In lower socio-economic communities there can also be a lack of communication about the disease generally and a failure to adequately translate precautions into languages that are best understood by minorities.
We see disenfranchised groups who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, within all communities but particularly within these socioeconomic and racial minority groups who are more vulnerable to infection – the elderly, the disabled and those with mental and physical health challenges.
At the international level, all over the world we are seeing inequality and COVID-19 interact. For example, refugees are collectively in an extremely precarious situation due to a lack of available medical care and uncertainty as to whether they will be infected by the disease and if they are, whether there will be any medical care available for them. In refugee camps there is often no possibility of washing hands or social distancing and a lack of testing which means that the numbers of those affected are uncertain. Those who are affected by conflict must deal with both mass atrocity and displacement, alongside struggling medical systems and the pandemic.
Inequality does not just influence susceptibility to infection by COVID-19 and an individual’s ability to survive, it also affects those who do not contract the disease but yet whose lives are impacted by the associated repercussions, particularly with respect to the financial implications of the pandemic and the widespread international economic fallout. For example, there are the millions who have lost their jobs globally, particularly those working in lower paid and less secure fields. There are those who have been long term unemployed or underemployed and whose chances of employment are now even further removed.
We are seeing the struggle of those who become unemployed in countries without a social security safety net or in countries with already struggling economies. It has been estimated that COVID-19 may push half a billion people into poverty, predominantly those living in poorer nations unless urgent action is taken. All over the world, children from underprivileged families must home school, which widens the inequality between children because those with economic difficulties will have no or inadequate access to computers, time and space to study.
Different countries have differing manifestations of inequality. In India we see the poor fear that they will die of hunger rather than COVID-19 as they are forced back to their villages as work is no longer possible in cities due to lockdown. In other countries such as the Philippines, those living in slums are subjected to harsh responses from the government if they break quarantine rules, including loss of life. We see other countries with suspiciously low rates of the disease, likely because they are not able to test those who may be infected. All are illustrations of inequality and the rising ramifications in our global community.
This global health crisis has caused an increase in those suffering from inequality to question the legitimacy and effectiveness of the state and also the international community to respond to these issues. This suggests that after the pandemic there may be new ways of both thinking about and also responding to inequality that will arise from this experience. This pandemic has shown us that we must look after all members of our society at the local, national and international levels, not simply a select privileged few and that the inequality suffered by some members of our community affects the wellbeing of not only those who have been sidelined but all of us, as an inextricably interwoven collective.
We cannot continue on as we have previously done. This pandemic is ushering in a change in how the state and citizens interact with one another and what those citizens expect as a result of electing their leaders – at least in a democratic country. At the very least they should expect adequate and affordable healthcare and governmental responses to social inequality, whether that is due to economics, gender or race.
This change in perception is affecting not only those subjected to the inequality but also others in society who are seeing in real time the devastating effects of inequality on those who are disenfranchised in their communities. The world needs to change, governments need to change, and this pandemic is showing us why and how we can change for the better, particularly through more engaged and inclusive governance at the national and international levels.