Covid-19: The Great Equalizer or Inequality Amplifier?
Author’s note: The Covid-19 series is a series of articles related to the current pandemic.
It has been more than 6 months since the world was engulfed by the Covid-19 pandemic. What started as an infectious disease outbreak in a city has now turned into a global health crisis, infecting 19 million of the world’s population and killing more than 700,000 people. As the pandemic rages on, it has affected every aspect of modern life. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the disease to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 31st of January and since then, governments have been scrambling to impose various methods such as border restrictions, nationwide lockdowns, and budget stimuli to contain the spread and navigate the fallout from the pandemic.
What was revealing but perhaps not surprising, is how much of the world’s weaknesses were exposed by the pandemic. Healthcare systems were overwhelmed by the surge of patients. World leaders continue to make poor decisions, even with the guidance of scientific evidence. Global economies came crashing down like dominoes. Social capital being tested from something as simple as the refusal of putting on face masks to deep, systemic problems like xenophobia and racism. All of our weaknesses were laid bare and there is no crack that the pandemic did not seep in.
The widening gap of inequality
On a deeper level, the pandemic also exposed the magnitude of inequality. While the middle to higher income class population just had to hunker down at home during lockdowns, the lower class and vulnerable population had to risk their lives out of homes because their work cannot be done remotely. Remote learning was hailed as the new method of education, but it did not take into account the gap in digital access for many students. Disruption to health services meant population in poorer countries were denied basic healthcare services, such as antenatal care, vaccinations and non-communicable diseases follow up. UNAIDS predicts the pandemic will unravel decades worth of work for HIV treatment for the vulnerable population. Evidence of certain segments of the population not receiving healthcare at all emerged, mostly in coloured folks. Women and children aid organisations around the world reported a tremendous spike in domestic violence and even without it, women continue to bear the burden of lockdowns in households, trying to balance work and family commitments. The strain on mental health on this segment of the population is so great, many are predicting the next health crisis will be mental health.
The list of widening inequalities continue.
The opportunity for reset
These exposed flaws gave the world some clarity. The magnitude of the inequality in almost all aspects of our lives simply cannot be ignored. And it wasn’t long before the pandemic is said to be the perfect situation for a ‘reset’. Some call it ‘the great equaliser’. Many saw the opportunity to rectify what was wrong before, to set new rules and to start over, hoping that global leaders will take this chance to learn from past mistakes and build a better future.
But is this view reciprocated by global leaders? Or did the decisions and policies continue to widen the inequality?
When the PHEIC was declared by WHO, it was emphasised that border restrictions were not part of the containment strategy. Yet, the global response was to close down borders in air, land and sea. This was the first sign of what I term as ‘nation-centric’ policies. The closure of borders was seen to ward off the potential spread of Covid-19 but in doing so, thousands of citizens are locked out of their country of origin. Many of the border closures were decided and implemented hastily. The Malaysia-Singapore border is one of the busiest land borders in the world and the decision to close the borders, even when thousands of Malaysians commute daily to Singapore to work, left many in a lurch. Many had to make the hard decision of leaving their families or risking their job, already uncertain in the wake of the pandemic.
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States
The next ‘nation-centric’ policy was city and nationwide lockdowns. The idea was to limit the movement of the people in public, hoping to stop the spread. This required countries to essentially stop all economic activities, disrupting millions of businesses and livelihoods. While the lockdowns worked, the cost was hard to swallow. Unemployment numbers rose and economists are predicting one of the worse recessions in history to come. Daily wage earners were left wondering what their future will be, with some even evicted out of the rental homes because they had no money to pay for rent. People were pushed to desperation.
One of the effects of the lockdowns was reverse migration. India particularly caught the world’s attention. The lockdown was effectively implemented overnight and without work, thousands of migrant workers had nowhere to go but to walk hundreds of kilometres home. Some perished during the journey, many were subjected to abuse and police violence along the way. This happened on the other side of the world as well, to the Columbians who worked in Venezuela.
Putting the nation’s interest above the world
As the months passed, the world pushed on for treatment or vaccine that would save us from the disease. Gilead Sciences had promising early trials using their drug Remdesivir. Immediately the world took notice and everyone tried to get hold of some supply. In the end, the United States bought almost all the Remdesivir supply, leaving nothing to the rest. There were also reports of the United States diverting a shipment of face masks intended for Germany. And when other pharmaceutical companies announced their work on possible vaccines, the United States poured billions in securing future stock from at least 4 different companies. But the ultimate ‘nation-centric’ act was the shocking decision by President Trump to withdraw from WHO, on the pretext of protecting the nation’s interest, leaving WHO without one of their largest contributors to global health.
Over the past few months, governments engaged in multiple discussions to secure vaccine supply, hoping to get ahead when it is finally out in the market. ‘Vaccine nationalism’, a term coined by TIME magazine predicts that the Covid-19 vaccine will be the new geopolitical currency to navigate global politics. While many countries also pledge their support for equitable distribution of the vaccine through organisations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, make no mistake that their nations’ interest will come first. But where is the line between a nation’s interest and the welfare of the global community?
On the surface, it is hard to see global leaders agreeing that the pandemic is an opportunity to do better after witnessing the decisions that have been made so far. But while it may be a long and exhaustive 7 months for us, the pandemic is still in its early stages. Some countries are experiencing their first wave or outbreak while some managed to control it, only to see a second or third wave breaking through. We will continue to see this trend of outbreaks for some time.
The last chance
So the window of opportunity has yet to close on us. We still have time, but global leaders have to act fast. The effects of the pandemic will reverberate through the world for years to come and even if only one country fails to contain it, the effects will spill over to the rest of the world.
It is time for the global leaders to put away ‘nation-centric’ policies and adopt a ‘global-centric’ approach to fight the pandemic. Stopping the pandemic is not a competition and the success or failure of a country in handling it shouldn’t be seen as one. More than ever, the global community must collaborate and help each other. A global pandemic is essentially a war against humanity. And the enemy in this war is not just the virus, but indifference as well.
The widening gap between rich and poor is not just natural phenomena. It is a sign that much of what we have been doing, especially in terms of models of economic growth, has been wrong.
- Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS