By Guido Lanfranchi.
We all knew that our societies were unequal. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemics still came as a slap in our face, awakening us to a harsh reality: inequalities matter much more than what we thought. In these times, inequality is no longer about wage levels, or net wealth: it’s about health or sickness, about life or death.
After years of debate about inequality, we all knew that our societies were unequal, and we all knew that these inequalities mattered. Owning a house was better than renting one, because it would not force you to pay the rent every month. A stable job was better than a precarious one, because it would allow you to better plan your life. A higher wage was better than a lower one, because it would allow you to buy more stuff. We were all aware about these differences, and we knew they mattered.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic came. The same inequalities were still there, they had not changed. Yet, the advent of the virus suddenly made these inequalities much starker. Owning a house – once already significant advantage – suddenly turned into nothing less than a blessing. Now, house owners have a shelter assured, while tenants remain hanging by a thread; homeless people, for their part, do not even have a thread to hang on. Similarly, having a stable job became even more of a game changer. Previously, a stable job was necessary to plan your life; now, a stable job might be necessary to plan your survival. The wage level too started to acquire a greater significance. Today, as salaries are getting slashed during the lockdown, people with lower wages might face difficulties in buying even basic necessities.
The pandemic was a slap in the face. From one day to the other, it has made us realize that inequalities matter much more than what we thought. The examples outlined above – which generally apply to European societies – could be considered the most crucial, or the most evident, but they are definitely not the only ones. We might think for instance to the more subtle difference between an office job in the services sector and a factory job. Two months ago, this difference could have been reduced to a discrepancy in the physical labor involved.
Today, with the office employee “working smartly” from home and the laborer forced to go to the factory, the very same difference is much more significant.
Moreover, if we zoom out from Europe, the picture gets even gloomier – to say the least. Even remaining within the imaginary boundaries of “the West”, the scenes that unfold straight before our eyes are quite unsettling. The United States is possibly the clearest example. We knew that homelessness was an issue for many in the US. But seeing Las Vegas’ homeless lined up in parking lots after the closure of their shelters… well, that makes a different effect. Similarly, we knew that healthcare in the US is largely dependent on one’s job and income. Yet, as a public health crisis forcefully hits the country, the scenario that looms on the horizon is alarming: rich people will afford better care, while poor people will be left to their own (scarce) devices.
Moving further away from our Western realities, the situation gets even worse – far worse. In India, the country-wide lockdown declared on March 24th has been seen by most health experts as the only way to stem the virus’ spread. While this measure will likely be effective in taming the virus, it will also have a huge impact on the Indian population – and especially, once again, on the Indian poor. Again, we knew that India was an unequal country. Now, however, this inequality is laid even more clearly before our eyes, as we watch scores of workers walking for hundreds of kilometers to reach their villages in search for shelter and food. Some of these workers have been dying on the road.
Let’s look at all these situations around the world. The current pandemic did not create the inequalities that we can now see so clearly; it simply laid them bare. Ironically enough, the virus is extremely egalitarian: it knows no distinction of nationality, ethnicity, or caste, and even less does it care about anyone’s wealth or income. What the virus does, however, is to put our societies in distress, and in doing so it blatantly puts a spotlight on their weaknesses, on our weaknesses. Inequality is one of such weaknesses – and it is much, much more relevant than what we thought. In this way, the current situation grimly brings some clarity to the inequality debate. Inequality is not about being rich or poor, stable or precarious, happy or sad. It’s much more: it’s about being healthy or being sick, being alive or being dead. This is not “inequality in the time of coronavirus”; this is simply inequality. And we should really do something about it.
Photography by Agata Buganska.
About the author:
Guido Lanfranchi is a student and young professional in the field of international affairs. He has pursued his studies both at Leiden University and Sciences Po Paris, where he is currently enrolled. In parallel, he has been gaining professional experience through internships (first at the Council of the European Union, and currently at Clingendael Institute), as well as by working as reporter and associate editor for Diplomat Magazine The Netherlands. His research and work focus on the Middle East and Africa, and especially on conflict situations in these regions.