The Pandemic Kills the Poor: Inequality Will Kill Them Even More

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2081 ... May 6, 2020
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The Pandemic Kills the Poor: Inequality Will Kill Them Even More

Joan Benach

In just over four months, COVID-19 has become the fastest-growing known global health crisis to date. Various systemic biological, political and public health factors have converged to make this happen: the contagiousness and the high mortality rate of the virus, the neoliberal weakening of national and global public health systems, the globalization of air-transport tourism, and institutional and political unwillingness to listen and react appropriately to the warnings raised by scientists and health institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) are some of them. Although no one could predict exactly when, how and where it would start, or who would be most affected, we have known that something like this could happen since at least the 1980s.

Scientists warned that global socio-ecological changes, which allow infectious diseases to emerge, were increasing at an unprecedented rate, or that, in the words of Nobel Prize-laureate microbiologist Joshua Lederberg, "the greatest threat to the continued dominance of man on the planet is the... virus." Yes, we were repeatedly warned. In 2015, Bill Gates noted in an outreach video and scientific publication: "There is a high probability that an epidemic of a highly infectious disease will occur in the next 20 years." And in September 2019, the WHO itself warned: "The world is at serious risk of devastating epidemics or pandemics of regional or global diseases that not only cause loss of life but also destroy economies and create social chaos." However, the coronavirus is not a global pandemic that affects the entire population equally, as is often repeated, but is further exacerbating the huge social inequalities that already existed.

In times of a pandemic, one of the best ways to assess the achievements versus the social injustices of a country or community is to analyze in detail its health conditions, and especially, the health system’s (and thus also the economic system’s) level of equity. Contrary to the very positive assessments of society’s ‘progress’ by authors such as Steven Pinker, Max Roser, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg or Hans Rosling, which flood us with optimistic indicators of today’s society and serve to justify the benefits of the capitalist system, poverty, social exclusion and inequality, globally and also within countries, are much greater than we imagine or want to see.

The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. Looking is an act of choosing, said British writer and art critic John Berger, adding: "we only see what we look at." In the novel Blindness, a strange virus suddenly produces mass blindness in the population. In this novel, the Portuguese Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago teaches us that "we are blind, blind who see, blind who, seeing, do not see." We do not yet have adequate analyses to be able to assess the comprehensive impact of the pandemic in a minimally refined way, but the preliminary results indicate many of the effects that are taking place, and also the consequences that are highly likely to occur in the immediate future. What lessons can we learn from the social impacts of a tiny betacoronavirus just 100 nanometers in diameter?

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