The most misleading cliche about the coronavirus is that it treats us all the same. It doesn’t, neither medically nor economically, socially or psychologically. In particular, COVID-19 exacerbates pre-existing conditions of inequality wherever it arrives. Before long, this will cause social turmoil, up to and including uprisings and revolutions.
Social unrest had already been increasing around the world before SARS-CoV-2 began its journey. According to one count, there have been about 100 large antigovernment protests since 2017, from the gilets jaunes riots in a rich country like France to demonstrations against strongmen in poor countries such as Sudan and Bolivia. About 20 of these uprisings toppled leaders, while several were suppressed by brutal crackdowns and many others went back to simmering until the next outbreak.
The immediate effect of COVID-19 is to dampen most forms of unrest, as governments force their populations into lockdowns, which keep people from taking to the streets or gathering in groups. But behind the doors of quarantined households, in the lengthening lines of soup kitchens, in prisons and slums and refugee camps — wherever people were hungry, sick and worried even before the outbreak — tragedy and trauma are building up. One way or another, these pressures will erupt.
It would be naive to think that, once this medical emergency is over, either individual countries or the world can carry on as before. Anger and bitterness will find new outlets.
The coronavirus has thus put a magnifying glass on inequality both between and within countries. In the US, there’s been a move by some of the very wealthy to “self-isolate” on their Hamptons estates or swanky yachts — one Hollywood mogul swiftly deleted an Instagram picture of his $590 million boat after a public outcry. Even the merely well-heeled can feel pretty safe working from home via Zoom and Slack.
But countless other Americans don’t have that option. Indeed, the less money you make, the less likely you are to be able to work remotely. Lacking savings and health insurance, these workers in precarious employment have to keep their gigs or blue-collar jobs, if they’re lucky enough still to have any, just to make ends meet. As they do, they risk getting infected and bringing the virus home to their families, which, like poor people everywhere, are already more likely to be sick and less able to navigate complex health-care mazes. And so the coronavirus is coursing fastest through neighbourhoods that are cramped, stressful and bleak. Above all, it disproportionately kills black people.
Coronavirus prefers some zip codes
Even in countries without long histories of racial segregation, the virus prefers some zip codes over others. That’s because everything conspires to make each neighbourhood its own sociological and epidemiological petri dish — from average incomes and education to apartment size and population density, from nutritional habits to patterns of domestic abuse. In the Eurozone, for example, high-income households have on average almost double the living space as those in the bottom decile: 72 square metres against only 38.
The differences between nations are even bigger. To those living in a shantytown in India or South Africa, there’s no such thing as “social distancing,” because the whole family sleeps in one room. There’s no discussion about whether to wear masks because there aren’t any. More hand-washing is good advice, unless there’s no running water.
And so it goes, wherever SARS-CoV-2 shows up. The International Labour Organisation has warned that it will destroy 195 million jobs worldwide, and drastically cut the income of another 1.25 billion people. Most of them were already poor. As their suffering worsens, so do other scourges, from alcoholism and drug addiction to domestic violence and child abuse, leaving whole populations traumatised, perhaps permanently.
In this context, it would be naive to think that, once this medical emergency is over, either individual countries or the world can carry on as before. Anger and bitterness will find new outlets. Early harbingers include millions of Brazilians banging pots and pans from their windows to protest against their government, or Lebanese prisoners rioting in their overcrowded jails.
In time, these passions could become new populist or radical movements, intent on sweeping aside whatever ancient regime they define as the enemy. The great pandemic of 2020 is therefore an ultimatum to those of us who reject populism. It demands that we think harder and more boldly, but still pragmatically, about the underlying problems we confront, including inequality. It’s a wake-up call to all who hope not just to survive the coronavirus, but to survive in a world worth living in.
Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board.