COVID-19 has highlighted the inequalities in our societies
The first week of March represents a shared milestone for humanity. It has now been a year since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) suddenly broke into our lives. Over the last year, COVID-19 has been a bigger factor in our lives than any other force. After a year of wearing masks, Zoom meetings, economic insecurity, travel restrictions, social distancing, quarantines, online education, and loneliness and uncertainty, we have all developed a “COVID self,” related to but different from the self we used to be, and a COVID worldview, newly optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the world in the light of our experience of the pandemic.
Looking at the world a year on from the onset of the pandemic offers some reasons for optimism. The ability of the world’s virologists and vaccine manufacturers to produce multiple effective vaccines against the new virus, at a speed unprecedented in the history of vaccines, is a tribute to science and humankind’s ability to reason its way out of a crisis. It is also a tribute to the best features of capitalism: Creativity, speed, logistical power, the pooling of knowledge, and the ability to rapidly scale up solutions.
Further, our ability to dramatically reshape our lives in response to the pandemic, and even find new sources of pleasure, creativity and opportunity in the midst of chaos, is a testament to human adaptability — the same trait that has made us the most powerful species in the history of our planet. Finally, the war footing response of many governments and societies gives us reason to hope that global institutions will marshal a similar response to other problems that threaten all humanity, such as climate change.
But, when we come to the debit side of the ledger, there is much to trouble us. To put it in a nutshell, COVID-19 has not only generated dramatic new challenges for the world, it has also shone a very harsh light on everything that was wrong with the global order before its onset.
Over the last year, the virus has retraced and often exacerbated the fault lines of class, gender, race and social injustice that bedevil our world today, perversely leaving the well-off better off and the lives of the marginalized even more marginal and precarious. To take just one example from my own country, India, millions of children from the middle and upper classes will soon complete a year of online education, while millions more from underprivileged backgrounds will have endured a year of regression as they wait for the village school or government college to reopen.
If there is any positive takeaway from this, it is that COVID-19, by the very pace and character of its depredations, has given us a short, revelatory course in history and its accumulated discontents.
Consider the fact that, in many Western countries, which have been the worst-hit by the virus, a disproportionately high number of fatalities have been among black and ethnic minority groups. The evidence almost suggests that the virus itself has a race bias. The truth, however, as recent studies in journals like The Lancet and the British Medical Journal have shown, is that people from these groups are far more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, to be low-paid front-line workers without adequate protection from the virus, to live in congested neighborhoods and settlements because of their poverty, and to have poorer access to healthcare. Decades and even centuries of social injustice and structural racism can be starkly projected onto the bar charts and COVID-19 death tolls.
Another dramatic effect of the virus is the way in which it has exacerbated the digital divide in the world of modern work and increased socioeconomic inequality. In the UK, where I live some of the year, shops and small businesses have been forced to stay closed for months on end, to the benefit of the supermarket chains and big businesses specializing in ecommerce. Each reader of this piece can add a similar detail to this picture from their own life experience, from the small restaurant down the street that has gone under to the families that have used up their savings to stay afloat.
The net effect of the pandemic on economic life has been to telescope into a single year a transition toward a digital future that we had expected would take perhaps a decade or more. Alongside climate change, inequality was already the most pressing issue confronting our world. The pandemic has made the levels of inequality even starker.
The pandemic has shone a very harsh light on everything that was wrong with the global order before its onset.
And the virus has showed up not just the inequality within nations, but between them. As I write, more than 20 million people in the UK have received their first vaccine dose. At the same time, more than 100 middle and low-income countries are yet to receive a single dose because the richer countries have bought up most of the scarce early supplies.
The attempts of Covax, an international vaccine alliance led by the World Health Organization, to ensure a more equitable distribution of vaccines are a small effort to remedy this inequality. By this summer, a young person in England will likely have received the vaccine, but a front-line health worker in Africa will not. All in all, COVID-19 has held up a mirror to our world. The sight we see can be pleasant but, the closer we look, the clearer the imperfections become.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Twitter: @Hashestweets