How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Intensifying Inequalities

Now, more than ever, we must (truly) leave no one behind.

Originally posted on ILLUMINATION (Medium)

To commemorate Europe day on the 9th May, I joined the #EuropeFutureFringe panel on behalf of the European Future Forum to discuss human rights and equality: how they are affected right now in different ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The thing is, issues related to social equality only seem to have become more apparent as a result of the crisis — as we are all pushed to our limits — both as individuals and as a society. As such, the situation brings out both the best and the worst in people.

Granted, right now our top priority is life and death, and we may have to put our more minor quandaries on hold. But equality is a matter of life and death — and in so many ways.

Equality means equal respect, as well as equal access to fundamental human rights and vital services — from shelter, to nutritious food, to healthcare, to a basic income, and also the education and training opportunities to enable you to reach your potential. And our needs for these things don’t stop during a crisis. Rather, they actually become even more crucial.

Healthcare Inequalities

In my native country, the UK: a country where the discussion on the National Healthcare Service has a shaky recent history, having been infamously used as an argument in favour of Brexit by the same conservative government inflicting budget cuts on it for the past decade —the public-funded healthcare system is now really struggling to meet the increasing demands of ventilators and ICU beds. And globally, as we see healthcare services strained like never before — both in terms of limited facilities and the workforce itself losing lives due to the horrors of the disease — we are forced to stare in the face the devastating reality of public funding cuts.

This, of course, only adds to the existing mix of issues — from regional inequalities of service quality to some countries — namely the US — still with an often intensely problematic insurance-based system that lets the vulnerable seep through the cracks — how on earth do we stand a chance of leaving no one behind in this shared fight against the virus?

Ethnicity Inequalities

There are also lingering ethnicity inequalities that have curiously come to a head during these times. This is sinisterly reflected in the death toll stats. In many countries, such as the UK and the US, it has become apparent that even though every group is getting the virus, it’s the ethnic minority groups that have the most deaths.

It was somewhat an elephant in the room for the first few weeks of the crisis in the UK — a country whose ethnic minority population is relatively high (and who also has a high proportion of foreign-born workers in the public sector) when so many of the faces and names presented on the daily remembrance bulletins, or plastered across the latest feature on COVID-19 casualties, were from the country’s African, Caribbean, and South Asian communities. But now, the sensitive issue is, at last, being called out. A similar phenomenon has been seen in the US, with African American citizens disproportionately suffering from COVID-19-related fatalities.

So what is going on here?

Of course, the virus attacks the body with no regard for one’s ethnic origin or race. So this phenomenon is most likely linked to one of the other (just as concerning) topics I will delve into later— namely the social class inequalities that still have worrying and glaring parallels to racial origins.

Gender Inequalities

As I have discussed previously at length, contrary to what many believe, gender inequalities are still rampant — yes, even in developed countries. And indeed, gender-based issues are also worsened due to the lockdown for various reasons.

For instance, there is a real risk of increased domestic violence due to the fact that at-risk individuals — often women and children — can’t leave the confines of their home whenever they may feel the need to. Increased frustrations and anxieties set off by the situation also only fuel the fire of already-abusive aggressors. And since the health and social care services are overwhelmed, they also may struggle to get the support they need.

And then there’s the issue of reproductive healthcare — from accessing necessary contraceptives to pregnancy-related services— these issues simply don’t vanish, no matter what other health-related stories may be making the big splash.

On this topic, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) states:

The COVID-19 pandemic is straining public health systems, triggering unprecedented measures by governments around the world. This crisis could exact a massive toll on women and girls. Women are disproportionally represented in the health and social services sectors, increasing their risk of exposure to the disease. Stress, limited mobility and livelihood disruptions also increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to gender-based violence and exploitation. And if health systems redirect resources away from sexual and reproductive health services, women’s access to family planning, antenatal care and other critical services could suffer.

Socioeconomic Inequalities

As already touched upon, social class issues are also further threatened by the pandemic — and on various fronts. For instance, those who have the means to “stock up” on food supplies — in other words, those who have the money to buy 2–3 weeks’ worth of supplies in one fell swoop — are only clearing the shelves for those who only have the means to buy the supplies needed for a week.

On top of that, lower-paid key workers such as cleaners, maintenance workers, supermarket cashiers, and care workers — unable to work from home due to the nature of their craft — are left with little choice to protect themselves. It’s easy for those working office jobs to preach the self-congratulating benefits of working from home — our complaints limited to bad video-call connections or less-than-ideal working spaces. But until the government forbids those working in your particular field from going to work and reimburses them financially, not everyone can simply #StayAtHome…

Of course, in an ideal world, they would likely prefer to. But if you have a boss instructing you to either come in or lose your job, a small business or contracting service to run that won’t be protected, or play an essential — albeit high-risk — role in the functioning of society such as healthcare of food distribution, then you must either expose yourself to the virus or face the financial repercussions.

Inequality of Opportunities

Similarly, there’s all this talk of distance-learning and homeschooling — as schools, colleges, and universities have closed their doors for the foreseeable… But let’s not forget that some parents or guardians simply don’t have the ability to assist their child’s learning —either because they are working the jobs mentioned previously, or maybe are limited by language barriers or health conditions.

The fact is, some guardians — whether blamelessly or not — simply are not there to support their kids’ learning. As a result, many children and young people are at risk of forgoing education for the time being, and we may see a severe long-term impact of this.

As also touched on by fellow panelist and EFF president, Dominik Kirchdorfer’s coverage of Europe’s ongoing “digital revolution,” and the need to ‘bring education to the 21st century,’ as well as tackle the‘raging inequalities’ in terms of digitalization, it’s simply undeniable that technology has become a huge and integral part of our lives.

From how we communicate, to how we study and work. It is also becoming increasingly a way to have our voice heard, or connect to services such as local authorities or — especially important right now — educational resources. In the cases where it’s not down to the parents to step into their child’s teacher’s shoes, the classroom has been taken online.

But in homes with no access to the internet or a suitable computer, how is the child supposed to keep up with their more privileged peers?

The Bottom Line

Overall, all pre-existing human rights and equality issues are becoming even more apparent due to the pandemic, and we must step up our fight — yes, even (and especially) amidst all the other chaos. The key is the equality of opportunities — from healthcare to education — and an unblinkered awareness of ongoing struggles.

Globally, we have made real progress in terms of human rights. As such, we run the risk of thinking that we already have equality. That there are no longer gender, racial or social inequalities. But we must acknowledge, despite the progress, that these problems do still exist — even in your supposedly tolerant or forward-thinking country. And even if you don’t personally feel their pinch…

In fact, in recent years, social liberties have been suffering a strong backlash across the western world, and emerging intolerant ideologies are threatening to turn back the clock.

And so, we simply must speak up about ongoing inequalities of all kinds, letting go of the fear of looking “ungrateful”, or like a “snowflake” for apparently not acknowledging what we do have to be thankful for. There is still much room for improvement, as the COVID-19 crisis has only highlighted.


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