12 Apr Inequality in a Pandemic
Inequality in a Pandemic
There’s a new cliché in town; pandemics are “great equalisers” apparently.
The sentiment has been expressed by a diverse range of public figures, from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to economist and inequality expert Branko Milanović. Even pop-singer Madonna got in on the act, posting a video of herself in a bath telling fans that the coronavirus is “the great equaliser”.
In some ways, Madonna is right. Once the Covid-19 virus infects you it cares not for your race, nationality or gender. Nor does it worry whether you are a millionaire, billionaire or on minimum wage. Even the Prime Minister of the UK found himself in intensive care this week; a timely reminder that once it infects you, the coronavirus concerns itself only with its own propagation and all that matters then is the strength of the immune system with which it does battle. So in theory everyone is at risk, regardless of social class. Accordingly, as world leaders exhort their societies to pull together to defeat the virus, a common refrain has been that “we are all in this together”.
But we are not “all in this together”. Some of us are in this a lot more than others.
We know that old age or having certain medical conditions makes some people more susceptible to coronavirus than others. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that we should add a third category that determines who is at most risk; socio-economic status.
Those occupying the lower rungs of the societal ladder are more likely to catch coronavirus and possibly as much as twice as likely to die from it if they do catch it. Such disparities have been highlighted in China where a new report shows that the death rate varied depending on the prosperity of each region, with poorer areas having a much higher mortality rate. In the US, where inequality is amongst the highest in the world, we are witnessing stark indicators of how poverty and race intertwine to produce much more negative outcomes for black citizens, who are being infected and are dying at a disproportionate rate. In Chicago, where African-American people form 29 percent of the population, they have constituted 70 percent of deaths from coronavirus. Being poor has become much more fatal than it was just a few short months ago.
The pandemic is not only leading to unequal health outcomes. The poor also suffer the economic consequences unleashed by the virus much more than higher income groups do. People of a lower socio-economic status are more likely to suffer a loss of income and access to healthcare as a result of the lockdowns that now grip much of the world. Workplaces that have low-paid employees are more likely to have closed down than those employing people in higher income groups.
Those working in the gig economy (“a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs”) are particularly vulnerable. Such workers are often technically self-employed contractors (allowing employers to avoid the obligations that come with having full-time workers on the books, such as sick-pay) and are therefore likely to be less eligible for the various government income supports that have been announced since the lockdowns began.
The gig economy accounts for a huge proportion of workers across the developed world. In the US, some estimates suggest that there are 57 million people working in the gig economy. A large number of these workers are on extremely low wages, as much as 58% less than regular workers doing the same job. It goes without saying that if such people fall ill, the effects on their economic and physical well-being will be much greater than those who have stable employment that provides good pay and healthcare (incidentally, the value of universal healthcare has never been more apparent). To make matters worse, those in the gig economy are often in professions that are at a higher risk of contracting the virus, such as childcare workers, couriers, maids and drivers.
Such inequalities have undoubtedly contributed to the spread of covid-19. After all, a combination of financial insecurity and lack of sick pay is likely to have led some people to continue working even if they believed they may have contracted the virus. To do otherwise may have meant an inability to pay rent or buy food. Such a dynamic applies not only to the gig economy but across whole swathes of the low paid economy. A recent survey by the International Trade Union Congress found that a majority of workers in the world feel as though they have no choice but to continue working through illness.
This should not surprise us. After all, low pay and a lack of basic benefits are not confined to the gig economy. In Walmart, the largest employer in the US, workers do not get sick pay and its half a million part time employees are entitled to just 48 hours paid time off per year. Amazon, the corporate behemoth that is doing extremely well out of the pandemic, does not offer any paid sick leave at all unless one has tested positive for the virus which, given the global shortage of testing carried out, is unlikely in all but the most severe cases. Amazon workers claim that conditions at warehouses are unsafe and have been contributing to the spread of the virus yet the company has refused to close and clean those sites where there have been outbreaks of covid-19. Such negligence is not confined to Amazon. In the UK, workers at warehouses operated by Asos have alleged that their employer has ignored advice pertaining to social distancing and has refused to provide safety equipment such as masks and hand sanitiser that would protect those working at their sites.
Unsafe working conditions, lack of sick pay, fear of getting fired if one complains; these are some of the problems that confront an increasingly precariatised workforce. Such situations should be viewed as intolerable, even in pre-pandemic times. But in the world we live in today, employment conditions like these have probably proved fatal to some. There is a stark contrast with the experience of those in better jobs who are likely to be employed by people who care that little bit more about them, even if this is merely in terms of the economic value of their “human capital”. With secure jobs and paid sick leave, the middle-class experience of this pandemic will be fundamentally different to those in precarious, low-paid employment. One crucial difference is the ability to work at home. Low-income workers are unlikely to be in jobs where working from home is a possibility; one survey found just 3% of those in lower socio-economic groups could do so, compared with nearly half of people in higher income groups. And of course, even where working from home is not a possibility for those on higher wages, childcare is likely to be far more affordable than for those on lower incomes.
As working from home becomes more widespread, inequalities in housing are also being exposed. Quality internet access and quiet working areas are certainly not universally available, meaning that inequalities in housing now impacts many people’s ability to effectively do their jobs. But the disparities go beyond effectiveness at work. With much of the world under lockdown regimes, experiences will differ depending on the quality of housing individuals have. Some will live in quiet neighbourhoods with nice gardens and easy access to essential services such as supermarkets or medical facilities. Others live in cramped flats with no open spaces nearby. Those in modern day tenements with shared bedrooms and squalid living conditions that might present significant health risks will be at a far higher risk of contracting coronavirus than middle-class residents of pleasant suburbia. Poor living conditions are more widespread than you probably realise. In one of the richest countries in the world, the Republic Ireland, some 600,000 people (about 12% of the population) live in homes with “a leaking roof, damp walls, floors or foundation or rot in window frames or floors”.
Of course, the most acute manifestation of inequality in housing is the large numbers of people who have no home at all. In Ireland there are more than 10,000 people classed as homeless although the true figures are likely to be higher. In the UK, 320,000 people are homeless. In the US, more than half a million individuals are homeless on any given night. Being homeless is a horrific, stressful experience and now the pandemic is bringing new challenges. Homeless people are more at risk of catching the virus due to a variety of factors, such as cramped living conditions at homeless shelters or the infeasibility of following basic hygiene practices when living on the streets. Homeless people are also more at risk of dying from coronavirus when they do catch it. According to the New York Times, up to 30 percent of homeless people in the US suffer from chronic lung conditions. Furthermore, following government recommendations such as social distancing, self-isolation and avoiding public places could prove impossible to those who cannot fall back on the sanctity of their own home. Some of the facilities that previously could provide some respite to homeless people have had to close down as a result of government restrictions. This was highlighted recently in the US where officials in Las Vegas converted a car-park into a makeshift open-air homeless “shelter”.
In short, many people will suffer and then die due to a lack of a home. Others, however, have several homes and they have been using them during this pandemic. Across the developed world, there have been reports of the well-off decamping to their holiday homes, with evidence that this has been a contributory factor in the spread of covid-19. In regions frequented by holiday makers, General Practitioners have been complaining that they have been “inundated by people with second homes…looking for medical care”. The super-rich can take this a step further. The Guardian reports that “the world’s richest people are chartering private jets to set off for holiday homes or specially prepared disaster bunkers”, with many taking their own personal medical staff with them. Good for them.
The widespread inequalities that exist in the developed world mean that, for many, the effects of this pandemic will be far more severe than they need to be. But such inequalities will, in the end, effect nearly everybody. We have noted how poor working conditions, fewer employment rights and substandard living conditions all make people with lower incomes more susceptible to the virus, ultimately facilitating its spread. Not only does this mean that the duration of economically damaging lockdowns will be extended but also means that everybody, regardless of social standing, is at increased risk of infection. Even if you have a nice job that allows you to work at home in comfortable settings, the existence of widespread inequalities in society are facilitating the spread of coronavirus and, ultimately, increasing your chances of getting sick.
Inequality is amplifying the pandemic, but the process is likely to also work the other way around. The pandemic is almost certainly leading to more inequality. The recession unleashed by the pandemic is likely to hit poorer segments of society with much more force than wealthier people. A case in point is the airline EasyJet who have forced regular staff to accept zero wages for months on end, while at the same time those in senior management are subjected to only 20% cuts in salary.
Post-pandemic, we should expect to see governments using the pandemic-induced recession to justify policies that exacerbate existing inequalities. Already, the UK government has been told by the Low Pay Commission and by various investor funded think-tanks that it must abandon its plans to raise the minimum wage. Meanwhile, some industries, including those who principally employ low-paid workers, will increase their profits as a result of the pandemic, swelling the bank balances of CEO’s and shareholders. Supermarkets, for example, are likely to enjoy a sharp rise in profits; in Britain the first week of lockdown witnessed an extra 15 million supermarket visits as people sought to stock up on food and other essentials. What about those corporations that have suffered losses due to the pandemic? Expect the government to bail them out, with ordinary citizens eventually picking up the tab through cuts to services and tax rises.
Indeed, tax rises and spending cuts are probably set to be a prominent feature of the post-pandemic world, as they were in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Italy, for example, will undertake the mammoth efforts needed to rebuild its society against the backdrop of a renewal of austerity, with the EU’s recently announced multi-billion euro rescue package likely to necessitate spending cuts when the time comes to pay the money back. There was of course another way of doing things; issuing Eurobonds would have ensured a level of burden sharing that reflected the lofty, but ultimately meaningless, rhetoric of European solidarity. As usual, such matters are instead resolved in ways that protect wealthier countries and wealthier people.
Inequality has been on the rise across much of the Western world for decades. Even traditionally social-democratic countries such as those in Scandinavia have experienced rises in inequality that at times have rivaled those in more neoliberal oriented nations such as the US and the UK. The pandemic is laying bare such inequalities as well as exposing the vulnerable situations that millions of people find themselves in. The great irony is that the pandemic has also revealed that it is often those people at the lower end of the income scale that are most crucial to a functioning society. Workers in supermarkets and pharmacies, at warehouses and factories, delivery drivers and public transport workers, have all ensured that the goods and services that are essential to us have continued to be available. None of which is to mention the army of medical workers toiling away at the frontline of this pandemic, in poor working conditions, often underpaid, and having been denied pay-rises year after year.
That so many essential workers are basically risking their lives to ensure that we can continue to eat, get the supplies that we need and stay healthy, whilst often receiving poor pay and inadequate benefits, should serve as a wake-up call that societal change is more necessary now than ever before.
Zack Breslin is the News Editor at The Scum Gentry Alternative Arts and Media and the recent author of “Ireland’s 2020 Election: A Highly biased, Ideologically Partisan Approach”, available at Amazon for Kindle and in paperback and in other e-book formats at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1008701