Social Justice Saturday time. Time to shine a light on another social issue that has become all too exposed by the devastation brought on by COVID. Every country is having to acknowledge the gross disparity in the percentage of COVID infections and fatalities that can be apportioned to our low income populations and to racialized (BAME) groups. Sadly, systemic racism continues to play a role in keeping large segments of our racialized populations marginalized and more vulnerable.
The irony is that this virus, unknown to the world until the beginning of this year and bringing new surprises nearly every day, spread as quickly as it did around the world because of the mobility of the wealthy and indeed the middle class, traveling by plane (and cruise ship) from places all around the world in jig time. When it first started to spread so widely, a common phrase was “we’re in this together”, meaning that the virus was infecting the rich, the poor, and the in-between alike, as a kind of equal-opportunity virus. Of course that wasn’t the case for very long. Not long at all. It rarely is.
We all know the reasons why the low income folks have been hit disproportionally hard by this unforgiving virus compared with those further up the income ladder.
Why low-income people are more vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.
- You are more likely to be in a job that has no option of working from home to stay safe, or to have any sick leave if you get sick. And you need the money to eat and pay your bills. So those workers, many of whom have been essential for the rest of us to keep going, end up in contact with the virus and then unwittingly spreading it further (cleaners, truck drivers, meat plant workers, agricultural workers, caregivers, healthcare workers, etc.).
- You are more likely to live in small, crowded spaces, so that the virus spreads that much more easily to that many more people.
- You’re more likely to have to take public transit to get to your work, further exposing yourself to the virus.
- If you don’t live where there is universal health care (or live in remote locations where access in inadequate regardless), you are more likely to have unattended underlying health conditions that put you at greater risk from the virus.
- If you are Black or Indigenous, you may have underlying health conditions by virtue of multi-generational systemic racism that has produced dysfunctional life situations and poor access to healthcare.
- If you are in the U.S. and are undocumented, you will not feel safe seeking medical help at all. All this sad situation does is ensure that the virus spreads even more successfully.
- If you are living paycheque to paycheque, or on social assistance or worse, having a healthy diet and safe shelter are challenges in themselves. These challenges lead to poor health outcomes.
- COVID-19 is excellent at going after those with poor health outcomes.
Social mobility: what factors prevent low-income people from rising out of an endless cycle of poverty.
Why do we have so much income/social inequality? Social inequality is to nobody’s advantage. The disparity between the lowest 10% of income earners and the top 10% has actually increased in most “western” countries in the past few decades, not decreased. The poor stay poor and the rich get richer. Surely this was not how it was supposed to be. So, rich folks, along comes a global pandemic comes and look at how vulnerable you’ve left all those people who have been doing hard work on your behalf, all for de-unionized wages, de-unionized lack of benefits, and low self-esteem.
Racism ranks high everywhere for challenges in moving out of poverty, to our collective great shame. That being said, regardless of race, it’s a sad truth that a person’s opportunities are in some measure tied to their socioeconomic status at birth, improving that status is a lot more attainable in some countries than in others.
This table shows data taken from the inaugural Global Social Mobility report produced by the World Economic Forum. The report ranks 82 countries (only showing the top 40 here) according to their performance across five key pillars for supporting equality:
- Healthcare – free (or at least affordable) access to healthcare for all should be a given.
- Education – equal opportunities for quality education, including early childhood education (an important equalizer) should be embraced for all.
- Technology access – given that the world is moving online, including remote work and remote schooling during emergencies like pandemics, access to high speed internet should be available for all. Costa Rica adopted this policy several years ago.
- Working conditions – access to decent employment, with decent wages and benefits, should be available for all. Currently, race is a roadblock in many places, as is the willingness by too many employers to provide a living wage and benefits.
- And, critically important, social protection.
There’s so much that can be done to improve in all of these pillars, in all of our countries. It’s a question of setting priorities and laying out solid public policy. Progressive societies are trying everything from universal public early childhood education to innovative jobs readiness and apprenticeship programs to experiments with a guaranteed basic income.
Voters can make a huge difference in striving for a fairer and more compassionate society, they just need to see that as important.
FYI, the fight to equal the playing field for all people, not just the already advantaged, has been a concern of the great thinkers for centuries.
It is to the shame of mankind that such greed and inequality persists. To what positive end? Let’s get to work changing these disparities. More equal societies will help us cope with many things, including being better able to cope the next time Mother Nature sends us a pandemic. And she will!
The Secretary General of the United Nations gave a speech on this very topic later in the day of this post. He used the occasion to highlight the urgency of the work to be done to overturn the unacceptable levels of inequality in the world. From The Guardian:
In an unusually strongly worded speech, António Guterres urged major reform to the UN security council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to address systemic inequalities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The health crisis had revealed the world’s fragility and “laid bare risks we have ignored for decades: inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities; environmental degradation; the climate crisis”, he said.
He said the pandemic was exposing “fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all. The fiction that unpaid care work is not work, the delusion that we live in a post-racist world, the myth that we are all in the same boat.”