The notion that the Covid-19 pandemic is “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 available should not repeat the same shameful scenario.
For almost a year, wealthy celebrities and government officials have been reminding us that “we are in this together” and “we are on the same boat”. US singer Madonna, for example, spoke from her mansion while submerged in a “milky bath sprinkled with rose petals” and told us the “great equaliser” myth about the pandemic. “Like I used to say at the end of Human Nature, every night, we are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together,” she was quoted as saying by CNN earlier this year.
Such statements by Madonna, and Ellen DeGeneres as well, have attracted much media attention not just because they are both famous people with a massive social media following, but also because of the obvious hypocrisy in their empty rhetoric. In truth, they were only repeating the glib stock phrases used by governments, celebrities and “influencers” worldwide.
Are we really “all in this together”? With unemployment rates skyrocketing across the globe; hundreds of millions struggling to feed their children; and multitudes of nameless and hapless families chugging along without access to proper healthcare, subsisting on hope and a prayer so that they may survive the scourges of poverty — let alone the pandemic — we cannot, with a clear conscience, make such an outrageous claim.
Not only are we not “on the same boat”, we never have been. According to World Bank data, nearly half of the world lives on less than $5.50 a day. This dismal statistic is part of a remarkable trajectory of inequality that has afflicted humanity for a long time. The plight of many of the world’s poor is compounded in the case of refugees from war, the victims of state terrorism and violence as well as the unwillingness of those with the resources to step forward and pay back some of their largely undeserved wealth.
The boat metaphor is particularly interesting in the case of refugees, millions of whom have tried desperately to escape from war and poverty in rickety boats and dinghies across treacherous seas to find safety. It has become an all too familiar sight in recent years, not only in the Mediterranean Sea, but also around the world, especially in Burma, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have tried to escape the ongoing genocide. Thousands 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 coronavirus 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 the virus.
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 of white people. Black and Latino communities were the most devastated.
According to this and other studies, the main assumption behind the discrepancy of infection and death rates resulting from Covid-19 among various racial groups in the US is poverty which is, itself, an expression of racial inequality. The poor have limited or no access to proper healthcare. For the rich and better off, this factor is of little relevance.
Moreover, poor communities tend to work in low-paying jobs in the service sector, where social distancing is nearly impossible. With little government support to help them survive the lockdowns, they do everything within their power to provide for their children, only to be infected by the virus and, in increasing numbers, die.
This iniquity is expected to continue in the way that the vaccines are made available. While several Western nations have either launched or scheduled their vaccination campaigns, the poorest nations on earth are expected to have to wait a long time before having access to life-saving vaccination.
In 67 poor or developing countries located mostly in Africa and the Southern hemisphere, only one out of ten individuals is likely to be vaccinated by the end of 2020, Fortune Magazine has 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 by rich nations. Dr Mohga Kamal-Yanni of the PVA put this into perspective when she pointed out that, “Rich countries have enough doses to vaccinate everyone nearly three times over, whilst poor countries don’t even have enough to reach health workers and people at risk.” So much for the numerous conferences touting the need for a “global response” to the pandemic.
Does it 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, dark-skinned people should not be allowed to die when their lives can be saved by a simple vaccine, which is available in abundance.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.