Like a magnifying glass, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed global inequality. The ever widening gap between rich and poor will only intensify and prolong the crisis for everyone. It is high time to make the battle against inequality a political priority.
For a brief period at the outset of the pandemic, despite all of the suffering that the virus was causing, there was said to be at least one common aspect: coronavirus affected everyone. Presidents, millionaires, celebrities —no one was immune to infection and a potentially arduous struggle. It might, we hoped at the time, bring the world closer together. It might bring about the realisation that this problem could only be solved by all working together. That there could be no progress at all, unless there was progress for all. Coronavirus, we thought, would be the great equaliser. Scarcely a year later we face a sobering reality: nothing could be further from the truth.
The pandemic has clearly added to global inequality, and the divide will in all likelihood only get worse in the years to come.
“A catastrophic moral failure”
Inequality arising from the pandemic has been most apparent in the global clamour for vaccines. Of course, the political decision makers assured us last summer that equitable, global vaccine distribution would be the only strategy for bringing about a quick end to the pandemic. Yet behind the scenes, some states that could afford to do so had already begun to stockpile the vaccine, without consideration for others.
By November of last year, the majority of industrialised nations had already reserved more vials than they needed to immunise their populations. Great Britain, for instance, reserved 200 million doses - for 66 million inhabitants. By the time the less economically powerful developing nations attempted to obtain the vaccine, the shelves were long since bare.
The consequences of such ‘vaccine nationalism’ - which follows no epidemiological logic but rather the might of the powerful - are already visible: according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 95 per cent of all coronavirus vaccinations thus far have been administered in only 10 countries. While the populations of Europe and the USA stand to be fully immunised by the end of this year, nine out of 10 people in developing nations will go without. In parts of Africa, it might be 2024 before there are enough vaccine doses to immunise everyone. “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure,” according to WHO Director General, Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who commented on the situation a few days ago with exceptional directness.
The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.
Africa and South America lag behind
A return to normal will therefore occur far later in developing nations than in Western industrialised nations. This has disastrous implications, particularly since the countries in question are already suffering the most economically from the pandemic.
Countries such as Malawi, Haiti or Burkina Faso cannot afford to provide comprehensive aid packages. Lockdowns, trade restrictions, and the contraction of global demand and investment have had an immediate impact on the economies of these countries. The result: for the first time in 20 years the number of people living in extreme poverty has risen. By the end of the pandemic, up to 150 million more people will be struggling for their very existence, according to the World Bank. Nearly as many will face acute hunger for the first time as a result of the coronavirus. Countless others have lost their jobs and some perhaps the prospect of a better future: in numerous African countries, where distance learning over the Internet is a fantasy for most, schools have been closed for months.
A look at the significant recent resurgence in debt burdens of the poorest countries makes this clear. An example: in Nigeria, the giant of Africa, nearly half of state revenue goes to servicing debts - substantially more than a few years ago. To cover operating costs for health care and education, for instance, the state must take on additional debt - a fatal, downward spiral with no end in sight.
Deep divides in the West as well
That all are not equal in the face of coronavirus holds true not only for international comparisons, but also within nations - especially in industrialised nations.
This becomes apparent when we look at health risks. Studies in the USA and Great Britain have already revealed that certain segments of the population - for instance, low-income earners, Blacks, and Latinos - are at significantly higher risk of coronavirus infection than the white majority. The pandemic has created a hierarchy of need here, as well: those at the bottom suffer more.
The crisis lays mercilessly bare what differentiates us as humans and how significant these social and economic differences are.
Switzerland is no different. According to a recently published study in Geneva, the infection rates in poorer areas of the city are significantly higher than in affluent areas. One would also expect to see the psychological burden distributed similarly. In a single-family home with adequate living space, lockdowns and mandatory home-office arrangements are naturally less stressful than in a modest rental apartment.
Inequality is particularly clear in countries where the pandemic has had a significant impact on the labour marker. In the first half of 2020, nearly one in ten non-skilled workers in the EU lost their job, while for those with a university degree, the unemployment rate actually fell. The same can be said for the USA where nearly four times as many low-income workers lost their jobs as those in higher income brackets. Since May of last year, approximately eight million Americans have fallen below the poverty line.
A central political challenge for our time
Clearly, the pandemic is not democratic. It discriminates far more against those who already found themselves in society’s lower ranks. The crisis lays mercilessly bare what differentiates us as humans - and how significant these social and economic differences are – and it has not brought us closer together. The feeling of sharing a common ‘endangered fate’ or Gefährdungsschicksal, with our fellow humans, as sociologist Ulrich Beck put it, was - if indeed it ever existed - forgotten. Even in political debate, scarcely a trace of it remains.
To learn from this crisis means looking to the day when social inequality is finally recognised as a central political challenge of our time and dealt with accordingly.
This ignorance casts a dubious light upon our collective moral aspirations as a society, but it is also politically unwise. Seldom has it been so clearly demonstrated how inequality prolongs and intensifies crises, as it has in recent months. It has also exposed how countries that have been able to better mitigate the pandemic’s negative social and economic consequences are often the ones who were in a better position concerning inequality to begin with.
When it comes to vaccine distribution, a course correction that at least reduces the global imbalance is still possible, and relatively simple: surplus vaccines in industrialised nations would have to be swiftly released, and those countries that lack financial or logistical means to provide a comprehensive immunisation campaign would have to receive generous and uncomplicated support. This idea seems to have taken hold: in the EU, and now in Washington, leaders are increasingly talking about pursuing this course of action, but only following recent sharp criticism.
Longer-term, however, emergency political measures are not enough. To learn from this crisis - and be better prepared for the next one - means looking to the day when social inequality is finally recognised as a central political challenge of our time and dealt with accordingly. Those not sufficiently moved by the moral imperative should be moved by the rational one and they will reach the same conclusion: this pandemic and its consequences will only be over when they are over for everyone, everywhere. Then, when the next crisis comes, it will be slower and less extensive if the chasm between rich and poor becomes smaller, not larger.
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Julius Baer pledged another donation of CHF 5 million related to the ongoing pandemic to further support disadvantaged individuals, families and children in need, as well as healthcare workers.
> Media Release (01. February 2021)
The Julius Baer Foundation supports sustainable initiatives for reducing inequalities of wealth and opportunity, which together pose one of the greatest challenges of our time. Our partner projects meet this challenge by connecting people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds for mutually beneficial collaborations that strengthen entrepreneurial and social competencies and networks, and lead to a brighter future. Coronavirus has threatened this future by dramatically increasing the ranks of the world’s poor.