The notion that the COVID-19 pandemic was ‘the great equaliser’ should be dead and buried by now. If anything, the lethal disease is another terrible reminder of the deep divisions and inequalities in our societies. That said, the treatment of the disease should not be a repeat of the same shameful scenario.
For an entire year, we were told that “we are in this together”, that “we are on the same boat”, with the likes of US singer, Madonna telling us that the pandemic has proved to be the “great equaliser”. Such statements have generated much media attention, not just because they come from famous people with a massive social media following but also because of its empty rhetoric. But are we, really, “all in this together”?
With unemployment rates skyrocketing across the globe, hundreds of millions scraping by to feed their children, multitudes of nameless and hapless families chugging along without access to proper health care, subsisting on hope and a prayer so that they may survive the scourges of poverty — let alone the pandemic — one cannot, with a clear conscience, make such outrageous claims.
Not on the same boat
Not only are we not “on the same boat” but, certainly, we have never been. According to World Bank data, nearly half of the world lives on less than $5.5 a day. This dismal statistic is part of a remarkable trajectory of inequality that has afflicted humanity for a long time.
The boat metaphor is particularly interesting in the case of refugees; millions of them have desperately tried to escape the infernos of war and poverty in rickety boats and dinghies, hoping to get across from their stricken regions to safer places.
This sight has sadly grown familiar in recent years not only throughout the Mediterranean Sea but also in other bodies of water around the world, especially in Burma, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have tried to escape their ongoing genocide. Many have drowned in the Bay of Bengal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated and, in fact, accelerated the sharp inequalities that exist in every society individually, and the world at large. According to a June 2020 study conducted in the United States by the Brookings Institute, the number of deaths as a result of the disease reflects a clear racial logic. Many indicators included in the study leave no doubt that racism is a central factor in the life cycle of COVID.
For example, among those aged between 45 and 54 years, “Black and Hispanic/Latino death rates are at least six times higher than for whites”. Although whites make up 62 per cent of the US population of that specific age group, only 22 per cent of the total deaths were white. Black and Latino communities were the most devastated.
Iniquity expected to continue
Moreover, poor communities in the US tend to work in low-paying jobs in the service sector, where social distancing is nearly impossible. This iniquity is expected to continue even in the way that the vaccines are made available. While several Western nations have either launched or scheduled their vaccination campaigns, some of the poorest nations on earth are expected to wait for a long time before life-saving vaccines are made available.
In 67 poor or developing countries located mostly in Africa and the Southern hemisphere, only one out of ten individuals will likely receive the vaccine by the end of 2020, the Fortune Magazine reported. The disturbing report cited a study conducted by a humanitarian and rights coalition, the People’s Vaccine Alliance (PVA), which includes Oxfam and Amnesty International.
If there is such a thing as a strategy at this point, it is the deplorable “hoarding” of the vaccine. Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni of the PVA put this realisation into perspective when she said that “poor countries don’t even have enough to reach health workers and people at risk”. But it does not have to be this way.
While it is likely that class, race and gender inequalities will continue to ravage human societies after the pandemic, as they did before, it is also possible for governments to use this collective tragedy as an opportunity to bridge the inequality gap, even if just a little, as a starting point to imagine a more equitable future for all of us.
Poor people should not be made to die when their lives can be saved by a simple vaccine, which is available in abundance.
— Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor. He is the author of five books.