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June 2020 Pulse

On March 31, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, described Covid-19 as ‘the great equaliser’. There is a sense in which Cuomo was right: the coronavirus is no respecter of persons and has in its wake afflicted healthcare professionals, a member of the royal family and a prime minister.

But the coronavirus pandemic has also revealed and exacerbated the appalling inequalities that exist in different countries across the globe.

Covid-19 amplifies existing injustices and insecurities in ways that cannot and should not be ignored. It forces us to open our eyes to these stark realities, and urges us not to whitewash the social inequalities that plague our societies and our world.

The lockdown measures that were enforced in many countries throw into sharp relief the disparities between different sectors of the population. According to a study of mobile data in the U.S., the wealthy are moving around less than the poor: they can afford to self-isolate and did so more quickly and consistently than the poor.

The New York Times (30 March) reported that although subway ridership in the Big Apple was generally down by 87 percent, stations used by low-income workers saw only a 50 percent decline.

The wealthy are more able to work from home than the less well-off. As Owen Jones puts it in an article published in The Guardian (9 April), ‘while managers conduct high-powered meetings on Zoom, their cleaners still travel across cities on early-morning buses to clean half empty offices.’

Across the world, lockdown measures also amplify grotesque inequalities. In his article published in The Straits Times (21 April), John Riady compares the ramifications of lockdown measures in Italy and India.

There can be no doubt that the Italian lockdown has caused economic hardships and reduced social expectations. But, as Riady rightly observes, ‘Italians have not been reduced to penury. They are struggling, but not against the odds.’

The situation in India, however, is strikingly different. The announcement of the lockdown by Narendra Modi, writes Riady, ‘was accompanied swiftly by the exodus of many thousands of migrant workers from major cities to far-flung villages because they did not have jobs or incomes any more.’

The coronavirus pandemic has and will most certainly continue to disproportionately punish the poor. We saw this clearly in the influenza pandemic of 1918, where death rates were much higher in poorer and densely populated neighbourhoods.

This scenario will surely be repeated in the current coronavirus pandemic. Overcrowded slums in developing countries and poor neighbourhoods in developed ones will find it hard to fight the virus or stave off community transmission.

One of the issues that the pandemic will exacerbate among the poor is that of hunger. Even under normal circumstances, the poor in societies across the world encounter acute food security issues. Covid-19 will worsen the already dire situation as communities or countries are unable to obtain fresh foods, produce or delivery of services over a long period.

Not only will the pandemic worsen the circumstances of the poor, it will also create the ‘new poor’ as it threatens the labour force and causes unprecedented unemployment. The social scientist Dinesh Sharma speculates that ‘Half a billion more people may be pushed into poverty due to the global pandemic.’

In particular, the pandemic threatens face-to-face services and the leisure economy as more stringent lockdown and curfew measures are enforced by governments to prevent the spread of the virus. This means that workers in these sectors – waiters, department store sales people, hotel desk clerks, maids, etc – will be adversely affected. These workers typically are not very well paid and they simply can’t do their work from home.

In many developing countries, the situation is even more dire. As Riady has poignantly put it:

Essentially, many developing nations will have to choose between saving lives and saving livelihoods. Death is no more communistic than life is: In a pandemic, some humans are more equal than others. Death stares at the poor far more lovingly than it does the rich. What the virus does not take, hunger does.

Other groups that will be disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic are women, the disabled, low-income migrant workers and asylum seekers.

Many women work in the industries that are most affected by lockdown measures due to Covid-19. According to the data provided by the Fuller Project, the majority of unemployed applicants in New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Minnesota in mid- to late March are women.

People with disabilities will also encounter discrimination due to Covid-19. According to the editorial of America Magazine, they ‘fear discrimination if they need medical care, especially if the spectre of “rationing” arises.’

Low-income migrant workers, especially those engaged in construction, are often housed in overcrowded dorms where it is impossible to practice social distancing. This makes for a very conducive environment for the rapid and wide transmission of Covid-19.

And the coronavirus presents a serious threat to asylum seekers in America and Europe who are housed in overcrowded makeshift camps where there are serious issues of hygiene.

It has been said repeatedly that the world will never be the same after this pandemic. The disruption is so great and so fundamental, affecting so many areas of modern life, that the dust may never settle quite in the same places after the upheaval. These enduring changes will result in a ‘new normal’.

But the pandemic should bring about other kinds of changes, positive ones, which, it is hoped, will be just as impactful and enduring. In short, it should bring about a social transformation. More specifically, it should change the way in which we relate to one another and the way in which we order our society.

At the fundamental level, and as the crucial and indispensable first step, the pandemic should sharpen and widen our vision. It should cause us to take notice of the things that we have routinely ignored, the things that are right before our eyes.

It should enable us to see the things that we have failed (or refused) to see before, and to see them in new and humanising ways.

Mostly importantly, this crisis should teach us to value the people we have all along taken for granted. They are ironically described as ‘key workers’ – nurses, care workers, bus drivers, supermarket workers – and yet they have been undervalued and underpaid for years. While the rest of society is cocooned in the safety of their homes, these workers risk exposure to the potentially lethal virus every day.

In a culture in which trenchant individualism is on a rampage, this pandemic should help us to realise just how dependent we are of one another. For example, if our front-line workers, migrants, labourers, janitors, sweepers, supermarket workers were to be adversely impacted by the virus, society as we know it will be brought to the brink of total collapse.

After this crisis has blown over and semblances of normalcy are starting to become evident once again, I hope that our experience of this great upheaval will result in radical and long-lasting change in us.

I hope it will help us to see the other as a neighbour. I hope it will cause us to re-arrange our priorities and our goals. I hope it will cause us to change our social policies and put together a new social compact that will make us a kinder and more compassionate society, one in which every single one of its members is valued, and treated with respect and dignity.

A deadly pathogen can never eradicate social inequalities in our world. Only we can – if there is a change of heart and a political will.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.