Once christened as ‘The Great Equaliser’, the virus is only widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Writer: Pauline Münchenberg
Editor: Dan Jacobson
Artist: Sophie Maho Chan
Since the first cases were officially reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in early January this year, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has continued to rage across the globe, affecting every country on Earth. Even though it was believed that no matter how wealthy, how well educated or how healthy, COVID-19 would not spare or differentiate between countries and people, the truth is that mainly the poor and weak suffer from the virus. Existing social injustices, inequality and discrimination have worsened since the pandemic began, and the negative consequences experienced by the most vulnerable in society have increased.
The North-South divide describes the global socioeconomic and political division between countries. In light of the pandemic, states like India or Brazil have had more difficulties coping with the virus and have struggled with much higher infection and death rates than other, more economically developed, nations. This can be traced back to greater poverty and poorer healthcare systems in low- and middle-income countries. Life often depends on jobs that require close contact with other people and the option to quarantine or practise social distancing is not possible. As developing countries tend to possess cities with greater population density, and multiple generations often live under one roof, the virus spreads more efficiently. Furthermore, poverty goes hand in hand with further restricted financial protections, pre-existing health conditions and poor hygiene, contributing to high death rates in these countries.
In the favelas in Brazil, for example, access to clean water is limited and areas are overcrowded. Obesity, diabetes and hypertension ‒ increasingly prevalent in countries like India and Mexico ‒ are risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19. This is reflected in the high death and infection rates, with both countries tallying among the ten worst affected nations worldwide. To prevent a catastrophic outbreak of the virus, many developing countries such as Peru or Nigeria have gone into strict lockdowns to limit the strain on weak healthcare systems. However, such drastic restrictions in turn lead to long-lasting economic and educational problems. In Peru, many continue to risk their lives by continuing to work unofficially to feed their families.
However, even in wealthier countries, division in the spread of COVID-19 and its negative consequences between the rich and poor can be found. In the United States, poverty disproportionately affects those from minority ethnic backgrounds or immigrants. In addition to the known circumstances surrounding poverty, for many people remote working is not an option, leading to higher infection rates. As shown by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ethnic minority groups in the US are significantly more affected by COVID-19. In almost all groups included in the study, case rates were nearly three times higher than in the white population, and hospitalisation rates were around five times higher. In the black population, the death rate was almost double that of the white population. These findings mirror ongoing social injustices, inequality and discrimination in American society.
Additionally, the negative consequences of COVID-19 beyond the disease are far more widespread in disadvantaged communities. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed worldwide, and for many children, severely limited access to online learning materials or home-school resources have led to a significant expansion of social inequality.
Even though everyone has suffered from the pandemic, it is the disadvantaged and ethnic minority communities that have experienced the most negative consequences. It is our obligation to protect the most vulnerable and to face inequalities in our societies, illuminated once again by the pandemic. Despite its many harrowing effects, COVID-19 has provided us with a chance to reassess our priorities, tackle inequality and work on improving life and health standards for everyone.