(In)equality of the Coronavirus
Reem Issa Reem Issa

(In)equality of the Coronavirus

We have heard over the last month or so, as the coronavirus spread to nearly all parts of the world, that it does not discriminate among humans on any basis. Particularly that the rich and poor are equal when it comes to being infected by COVID-19, and the most vulnerable are primarily the elderly or those with underlying health conditions. This, to some, was evidence that there is finally something where all humans are equal – some went as far as saying that this was, in a way, a positive side to the virus, where the underprivileged are for once not at a greater disadvantage. This cannot be further from the truth.

If we were to try to find a silver lining, albeit a very thin one, in this whole coronavirus crisis, two things come to mind first:

1- The environment is getting a chance to breathe – almost literally, as can be seen in these interactive maps showing the difference in air pollution levels between 2019 and 2020 in several parts of the world that The Guardian published last month.

2- Exposing the major flaws in the current world order and existing systems, particularly in the West, where human dignity and freedoms along with human rights and equality were allegedly the “values” on which everything was built including governance models, laws, social welfare, service provision, and the like – or so the West tried to convince its populations (and the rest of the world) for a long time.

Today, more than ever, we can clearly see inequality in its ugliest forms and as a direct result of the coronavirus crisis. The working class, which has silently (perhaps because most people were taught or conditioned themselves to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to it) suffered for a long time, continues today to suffer on many levels, and increasingly so with the added disadvantage of being the most vulnerable to this novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

As a start, the most essential jobs that are also low-status poorly paid jobs are conducive to higher exposure to the virus – e.g., cleaning crews in all industries, supermarket staff, hospital non-medical (and some medical) staff, blue collar workers in some essential industries, etc. – and in many countries they are still not getting the necessary protection gear and regulations they need. Recently, we saw at least one example that if and when workers dare to demand protection measures, they can simply get dismissed as demanding such things is not commensurate with the “values” of corporate America, i.e. daring to ask publicly and openly for decent working conditions, as happened with an Amazon warehouse worker – keeping in mind that Amazon is one of the few companies that has benefited greatly from the crisis as more people are opting to order their necessities online instead of braving the stores.

As these workers are in a greater risk of getting infected due to poor working conditions, lack of protection, and not being able to keep the recommended distance in their work environment, they go back to their families and neighborhoods, where the idea of social distancing is quite different when smaller spaces house greater number of people. No, this is not because “these people” have more kids than the fancy rich people, but because they usually cannot afford homes where each person has their own room and often multiple generations of the family live together – no, they cannot afford and do not usually send their elderly to a retirement home. In the communities where most of the working class can afford to live, there are no supermarkets where people can shop while staying 6 feet (2 meters) apart while strolling down aisles filled with fancy brands and labels. They usually crowd at the bakery and produce stands to get their daily need of food, that is if they made enough money to be able to get even that.

Furthermore, as healthcare systems around the world focus their efforts on combatting the virus, fewer resources are available for healthcare provision to the working-class communities. As we have seen over the last month or so, authorities have been advising people not to go to – and they are increasingly getting turned away from – healthcare facilities unless and until they are showing extreme symptoms, by which time, they have probably already infected a greater number of people in their crowded homes and communities. The additional disadvantage here is that those who can afford it will and do find a way to receive medical care early on, not to mention being able to get tested as frequently as they wish, and if we were to guess – but we do know – that they would not be turned away and will always find a healthcare facility or professional to tend to them. Moreover, the shifting focus to addressing the coronavirus has reduced the ability to treat patients who are not infected with COVID-19, which results in aggravation of other health issues that in turn make them more vulnerable.

Finally, many of the working-class communities depended on, in addition to their low-paying jobs (many of which are getting cut anyway), charities, civil society organizations, and community-based organizations for several aspects of their daily lives, including foods and the most basic needs for their livelihood. It has become clear from just one month of this virus and response thereto going global that financial cuts are being made everywhere, and many of the organizations that traditionally helped the underprivileged communities have already lost most of or all their funding and/or had to close down completely, thus cutting off an essential source of livelihood for a large segment of populations that depended on it. Some of these services included free childcare, which was essential for the working-class, a large portion of which works evening and night shifts – this in addition to school closures, meant for many having to choose to stay home and losing their meager incomes, because the majority of their employers refused to accommodate the extenuating circumstances and simply dismissed – something that the law allows or at least does not prohibit, that is the law that is “in accordance with the highest standards of human rights” as the West has long alleged.

In light of the above, we should at least revisit the Western version of equality, human rights, freedoms, and social value system. It is no longer enough to be “equal before the law”, something that itself requires examining as a false concept in its Western framework, and to consider a wholistic approach to equality – economic, social, political, and cultural – a natural result of which would be equality in and before the law.

Now is the time, not only to recognize these inequalities, but to address the causes that led to their emergence, which should be no longer something we pretend that we do not see, perchance we resurface from this crisis a better human race than we have been for decades, or ever.