Social Justice Saturday: Inequality and COVID-19

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.

Social mobility of countries, as measured by 5 metrics. Source: Visual Capitalist

Number of generations for low-income families to reach the average income. Source: Business Insider.

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.

Plutarch, circa 100 A.D.

Noah Webster, circa 1810

Martin Luther King, Jr., circa 1960

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!

Addendum

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.”

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14 Responses to Social Justice Saturday: Inequality and COVID-19

  1. Pingback: Map Monday: a potpourri of world maps | Robby Robin's Journey

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. Well, I’ll have to leave that to American voters, Alesia. But Trump isn’t responsible for income inequality in the U.S. He’s not helping decrease the inequality, that’s for sure, but sadly it’s been alive and growing long before he arrived on the scene. Aside from pervasive racism, the love of tax cuts for all and the strange aversion to social safety nets like universal health care in the name of “socialism” are big contributors. But this post isn’t about the U.S. anyway; Income inequality is an issue nearly everywhere.

  2. Very pertinent thoughts, Jane. Re: high COVID rates for non-white populations. I’ve always just quickly assumed that those communities lacked sufficient exposure and opportunity to quality healthcare. But as you point out, it’s more than that. Economic disadvantages also play a part in it, and your example of having to use public transportation and/or working in jobs that are essential front-line essential work is perhaps a bigger reason. Thanks for pointing that out. – Marty

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Marty. Yes, sadly, income Inequality, especially over generations and with societal barriers in place (though often invisible to those of us who don’t encounter them), is complex.

  3. nitinsingh says:

    V good n different point, thnx to share this lovely post.

  4. I see greater economic inequality in 2020 UK than I can remember in previous decades, the difference between socialist 1970s Britain and today couldn’t be starker or MORE plolarised, however now that I’m comfortably off in my 50s I understand accumulating wealth isn’t so much greed for us average citizens, this need for ‘cash’ has perhaps more to do with a human beings anxieties…….. you fall ill? You need money to pay the medical Bills! You lose your job? You need money to feed your family! You want a reasonable quality of life? You need disposable income!………I’m afraid to say living in this horrible selfish world you have to look after number one because NO ONE will do it for you. Sad but true?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Very good point, A.S. The years of austerity by successive Tory govts in the UK is a good example of public policy actually enabling the rich to get richer and the poor to stay poor, like the never-ending tax cuts in the U.S. I wasn’t thinking of greed in terms of individuals but as the social policies put in place by those governing that create/enable these growing inequalities. It’s left the “ordinary people” to fend for themselves as best possible, as you’re pointing out. And it leaves those at the bottom with no ability to get their foot on the ladder to try to fend for themselves. It could be so much kinder.

      • I’m reminded a Tory Government would NEVER have created our wonderful NHS, benevolent socialism works, the 1970s was far from perfect but I’m the product of an excellent state funded education, back in the day the majority rented (good) affordable housing then Margaret Thatcher bought the working class vote by giving people the opportunity to buy their own homes and that’s the point the rot set in!!! A caring society pays its taxes to help the disadvantaged (or when we ourselves can’t afford a hospital operation)……….. our NHS is a shining example of what can be achieved my only worry is what parts 😦 Boris is going to sell to the Americans. (Big sigh!)

        • Jane Fritz says:

          I couldn’t agree more. There is little evidence that current leaders like Boris and Trump have any interest in furthering the well-being of ALL their citizens. It’s only about vote-getting and self-glorification. Couldn’t be sadder. There’s so much potential.

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