As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) kills thousands and drags the global economy into a recession, it is also highlighting inequalities between and within countries. The pandemic is exacerbating inequities in terms of exposure and vulnerability to the virus, access to health care, and the ability to cope with a major economic shock.
In general, developed countries are better equipped to manage the pandemic, but COVID-19 has nonetheless reinforced inequalities within developed countries. In Europe and the US, the less affluent often have a reduced ability to work from home and practice social distancing. Many essential workers — including custodial staff, grocery clerks, delivery workers, and some health care workers — are dependent on hourly wages, must work and, therefore, are more exposed to the virus. Many self-employed and gig economy workers lack paid sick leave.
In the US, lower-income Americans and racial and ethnic minorities have higher rates of underlying health conditions, making them more vulnerable to becoming very ill or dying with COVID-19. Furthermore, less affluent Americans have fewer resources to cope with the economic shock caused by the pandemic. Food banks, which provide essentials to those who cannot afford them, have seen huge increases in need; in some cases, Americans have stood in long lines — potentially exposing themselves to the virus — to receive free or low-cost food.
The economic crisis has particularly hurt non-salaried Americans who cannot work from home, such as in the retail and services sectors. However, if people try to return to normal activities before the virus is better contained, then those same people who are suffering economically will also be more exposed to infection. As many Americans lose their jobs, they often lose their employer-provided health insurance, leaving more people uninsured at a time of a public health crisis. The pandemic has highlighted other inequalities, such as unequal access to the internet, which limits people’s ability to work from home and take part in distance learning.
The current and potential impacts of COVID-19 in less developed countries highlights the inequality between wealthier and poorer nations, as well as inequalities within less developed countries. Latin America is arguably the most unequal region in the world; many people there live in overcrowded conditions, sometimes lack sufficient access to handwashing facilities, and are vulnerable to the virus’s spread. In Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia, many people work in the informal economy, with no protections if they are sick or told to stay at home. Many cannot afford access to health care. In one of the early cases in Brazil, a wealthy woman returned from holiday in Italy and became ill but reportedly did not warn her maid, who became infected and died. For many Brazilians, the case highlighted economic inequities and class attitudes.
India’s massive lockdown initially did not include measures to assist the 400 million informal workers who were dependent on daily wages. India’s leaders were clearly unprepared when millions of internal migrant workers chose to walk long distances to their home villages, rather than endure extremely difficult living and economic conditions in the cities. However, the migration came with its own risks of exposure to COVID-19 and of economic deprivation.
Around the world, there are specific groups that have long suffered from inequalities, which are now increased. Economic migrants often work in essential jobs or must continue working, given economic realities, and thus are more exposed to the virus. In some countries, migrant workers are now isolating in crowded conditions with little to no income, but cannot return home due to travel restrictions. The economic crisis is particularly problematic for lower-paid migrants, including those who depend on their job to maintain a legal status in their host country. In some nations, stimulus measures designed to help citizens cope with the economic crisis do not extend to migrants. Countries that depend on remittances will suffer an economic hit as migrants lose wages.
The pandemic is especially threatening to refugees and internally displaced people around the world. They often live in extremely crowded conditions, already suffer from poor health and have limited access to handwashing facilities, health care, safe shelter, and economic assistance.
Economic migrants often work in essential jobs or must continue working, given economic realities, and thus are more exposed to the virus.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently noted, the virus threatens to roll back “even the limited gains” made in addressing gender inequities. While men appear to be physically more vulnerable to the virus, the pandemic’s socioeconomic effects take a greater toll on women and girls. Women often work in the informal economy and lack the economic resources to cope with lost income. With children home from school and many older people sick with the virus, the unpaid care work that women provide has massively increased. They face additional risks too, including an increased threat of domestic violence.
It is unclear what role the pandemic will play in global inequalities in the long term. It might lead to a greater appreciation for essential workers and increased government protections and services directed toward the groups that are particularly vulnerable to disease and economic shocks. There are historical precedents; the Black Death, for example, played a major role in empowering laborers, though that plague and the economy at the time were very different from COVID-19 and today’s economy. However, it is just as likely — if not more so — that the pandemic might deepen inequities, which could lead to greater social, political and economic instability in its aftermath.