- A lot has been written about how this pandemic is exacerbating social inequalities. But what if it’s because our societies are so unequal that this pandemic happened? There is a school of thought that, historically, pandemics have been more likely to occur at times of social inequality and discord. As the poor get poorer, the thinking goes, their baseline health suffers, making them more prone to infection. At the same time they are forced to move more, in search of work, and to gravitate to cities. The rich, meanwhile, have more to spend on luxuries, including products that hail from far-flung places. The world becomes more tightly connected through trade, and germs, people and luxury goods travel together along trade routes that connect cities. On paper, it looks like a perfect storm.
- Pandemics don’t always trigger social unrest, but they can do, by throwing into relief the very inequalities that caused them. That’s because they hit the poor hardest – those in low-paid or unstable employment, who live in crowded accommodation, have underlying health issues, and for whom healthcare is less affordable or less accessible. This was true in the past and remains so today. During the 2009 flu pandemic the death rate was three times higher in the poorest fifth of England’s population than in the richest. Covid-19 is showing no signs of departing from the pattern, which, because of the way the socioeconomic dice fall, also has a racial dimension. But there is something brand new about this pandemic, which has never been seen before in the history of humanity – and that is our unprecedented global experiment in lockdown. These lockdown measures are designed to slow the spread of the disease, relieve the burden on health systems and ultimately save lives – and it looks as if they may be doing that. But they may also be exacerbating social inequalities themselves.
- In India there have been reports of deaths among unemployed migrant workers returning home in search of food; many countries, including the US, have seen workers taking industrial action, and anger has been expressed in rural communities over wealthy city-dwellers retreating to their second homes for the duration. Governments should keep an eye on these developments, in weighing up when and how to lift the lockdown, because even if it’s difficult to argue today that the cure is worse than the disease, the cure might provoke an entirely different malaise – and history teaches us that no society is immune to that. That’s the symptomatic treatment. In the long term, of course, they – and we – should address the dreadful inequality in our societies, which this pandemic is picking apart with a lethal scalpel.