Take the group of folks who are simply working from home, getting paid the same salary, dealing with a dog barking on your Teams Meeting, COVID-19 is an inconvenience. Sure, some may get sick themselves and they will absolutely know someone who gets sick, hospitalized, and probably somebody who dies from the Coronavirus. I do not want to minimize the overall impact across the board. This virus does not discriminate; however, humans still do.
Now consider an example from another group of people. A couple with 3 kids who rent a house and both parents hold service positions at a restaurant. For this family, the situation is grave. The restaurant and school both closed, which increased their personal costs while eliminating their revenue source. Or consider the single parent who works at the grocery store who is ‘allowed’ to work—and might even see increased hours. Being an essential employee allows her to earn an hourly income, but she is exposed to the Coronavirus. Given financial burdens, she doesn’t have a choice. Sure, her place of employment has been labeled ‘essential’ by the government, and so she can earn money, but she might choose to be nonessential.
Both examples are more likely than the first group to live in closer quarters, to rent an apartment, have less access to healthcare, less savings, and fewer safety nets in general. There is, of course, a third tier of increased susceptibility. It is sobering to consider how this virus will spread through the most vulnerable of us, people in prisons, nursing homes, patients in cancer wards and with immune-deficiencies, and our growing homeless population. For these individuals, there is literally be no escape and no option.
None of this is new to the dialogue, however, I wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic will expose the inequality that exists in our world. If the misnamed Spanish Flu from 1918-1919 is a benchmark, then it absolutely will. However, given the stresses of World War I, many government officials and public news outlets did not want to present more bad news, and so the inequality was largely forgotten about soon after. In fact, it was the Spanish government who first presented real data on the situation, leading to the perpetually misnomer of the strand of influenza itself. In 2020, we do not have a global war to detract attention from the pandemic or the glaring inequality that it highlights.
In my sustainability marketing class, we go over all of the factors that contribute to the current problems we face. Global income inequality is not often on the top of mind, but the class quickly comes to a consensus of its role. The stats are always changing and always staggering. For instance, as of December 2019, the top 26 richest individual people hold as much wealth as the bottom 3.8 billion. [That one deserves a second look, but when you consider that 1+ billion people live on less than $1 per day and Jeff Bezos has 107.3 billion dollars, it adds up].
These eye-popping numbers go on and on. In normal times, socioeconomic status is related to outcomes such as quality of life and life expectancy, but we are about to witness just how negatively correlated the variables can be. For those of us who are somewhat insulated, who have the privilege to social distance, is there something we can do?
There is a lot of rhetoric about what is going on in relation to COVID-19, and hopefully we begin to ask what are potential ‘silver linings’? We’ve already seen this happening with reduction pollution in China, but what are some other social aspects that we can address in this time of crisis so that when things get ‘back to normal’ we do a better job at protecting those of us who need protection? I don’t suggest that any true good can come from a global pandemic; it is just putting a lot of social institutions under the microscope. Some for better and some for worse. Regardless, we won’t be able to justify our global imbalance when it is so blatantly in our faces via red numbers on a ‘death toll’ screen.
In summary, is this just a “Them’s the breaks, kid” situation for certain people beneath an arbitrary socioeconomic divide or do we have a responsibility to shift the paradigm? If the latter, how? John Rawls Theory of Justice is a good starting point.
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.