Home > Uncategorized > Global inequality in a time of pandemic

Global inequality in a time of pandemic

from Jayati Ghosh and issue 93 of RWER

A global pandemic is a particularly bad time to be reminded of existing inequalities. But there is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the extent of inequalities between and within countries. Whatever may be the fond sentiments expressed by at least some global leaders, we are clearly not “all in this together”. It is true that in principle, a virus is no respecter of class or other socio-economic distinctions: it enters human hosts without checking for such attributes. And the rapid global spread of this particular virus has shown that it is no respecter of national borders either, which points to the more fundamental truth that as long as anyone anywhere has a contagious disease, everyone everywhere is under threat. This should have made it obvious that ensuring universal access to health care and prevention is not about compassion, but about the survival of all. Unfortunately, that obvious truth is still not adequately recognised, mainly because existing structures of authority and power imbalances ensure that the rich and powerful continue to be more protected from both health risks and material privation.

Diseases tend to strike people differently depending not just on the strength of public health systems, but on existing fissures in society: of class, race and ethnicity, gender, caste and other divisions. There are poverty traps caused by negative feedback loops between the squalor associated with income poverty and infectious diseases. In unequal societies, poor and socially disadvantaged groups are both more likely to be exposed to Covid-19 and more likely to die from it, because the ability to take preventive measures, susceptibility to disease and access to treatment all vary greatly according to income, assets, occupation, location, and the like. That is why, even in rich countries like the United States, it has been found that death rates from coronavirus for blacks are nearly three times greater than those for white people (APM Research, 2020) and in some states, the ratio is as high as 6 or 7. In developing countries, such divisions are often even sharper. Perhaps even worse, the governments’ containment policies for Covid-19 within countries have also shown extreme class bias, with possibly the most egregious example coming from India, where migrant workers have been at the receiving end of a particularly brutal yet ineffective lockdown that failed to control the virus yet devastated livelihoods, especially of informal workers (Stranded Workers Action Network 2020).  read more


  1. August 3, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    A recent post by one of the UBI orgs suggests that a global UBI would cost about 200 billion USD/month to allow people to stay at home, reducing deaths from Covid 19. But the UBI in general would have a much greater impact if it reduces the migration due to drought and other environmental factors. On the other hand, the cost for distribution and the potential for corruption and exploitation that such a pmt might create provides a greater problem

    • Ed Zimmer
      August 3, 2020 at 6:02 pm

      It seems to me that a practical UBI requires payments adequate to cover people’s needs without covering their wants. If people’s wants are covered, who will repair our roads, bridges,water & sewer systems, etc. (I don’t buy into the myth that people’s wants are unlimited.) I haven’t seen anyone address this. If you have, I’d appreciate the pointers.

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    August 15, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    Inequality in wealth, power, prestige, and status has existed among humans for over 10,000 years. Or from about the time humans first began to farm and domesticate animals. Before then there was nothing to fight over since humans lived as hunter-gatherers. With farming and animal domestication property and then private property were invented. Then factions began to form around land, crops, animals, and government/village positions. The factions created reasons those of whom they disapproved should be disadvantaged, were less equal, had deficiencies, etc. So, on top of land, crop, cattle, etc. discrimination they added legal, religious, racial, gender, ethnic, etc. barriers. Over millennia these solidified as cultural fixtures. Historically these have changed only in times of disaster or upheaval. And even then, they often returned in a few generations. In the case of the US, people came to the North American continent as subjects of one monarchy or another. Some in 13+ parts of that continent chose to attempt to form a democratic republic. Thus far, the attempt has failed. Let us see what the future holds!

    COVID has highlighted that failure for two reasons. First, because deaths, want, and sickness from inequality can no longer be easily hidden. As they were prior to the 20th century. Second, because now, unlike prior to the late 19th and 20th centuries there are effective treatments for viral illnesses such as COVID. Formerly, there was little difference in the disease treatments available to the wealthiest and poorer members of society. Today, there is hospitalization, vaccines, ICUs, etc. available to anyone “who can pay for them.” Leaving out many of the poorer members of society. Since pain, suffering, and death are what is not shared equally here, this stresses and often breaks the social cohesion necessary for the political, economic, educational, etc. actions needed to hold a society together. The society flies apart. As American society is today.

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