COVID-19: Are we all in this together?

Hollywood celebrities, sport stars, politicians and millionaires – nobody seems to be safe from COVID-19. But depending on where you live and what you do for a living, you may run a higher risk of contracting the virus. And if you do, the quality of care you receive and, indeed, your chances of survival may depend on the thickness of your wallet.

A new policy brief just released by UN DESA found that coronavirus cases and deaths are not equally distributed. The brief also details how countries can turn the COVID-19 crisis into a transformative moment for reducing inequality for generations to come”.

Whether in developed or developing countries, people living in poverty and members of other disadvantaged groups are more likely to become infected. Social distancing is not an easy feat for people who live in small, crowded dwellings, slums, prisons or refugee camps.

Many low-wage workers cannot afford to stop working or do not have the option of working from home. Frequent handwashing is not an option for the three billion people without handwashing facilities at home. Access to information is also uneven, not least because of the persistent digital divide.

Once exposed, people in disadvantaged groups are at a higher risk of dying, either because they do not have access to health care or because they cannot afford it. In addition, the incidence of pre-existing conditions that increase the fatality risk is higher among such groups. For example, although persons of African origin comprise only 13 per cent of the United States population, they account for over one third of all known COVID-19 cases in that country.

The abilities to cope with the health, economic and social consequences of the pandemic are unequally distributed as well. People without savings or access to social protection are more likely to fall into poverty or sink into deeper poverty due to the health shock or as a result of the economic downfall. As a result, many are left to choose between health and economic welfare—or, worse yet, between illness due to the virus and illness due to hunger and malnutrition.

Although the COVID-19 crisis is still unfolding, there is every reason to believe that poverty and inequality are growing. These negative social effects could last for years, even after the health crisis ends and once economic growth returns. They could even leave a mark on future generations. But they do not have to.

The long-term outcomes of the crisis will depend on our policy response. Historically, policies implemented in the aftermath of pandemics and other major crises often helped reduce inequality and reshaped the world for the better. The UK, for example, launched a public housing programme after World War I and the US instituted a social security system during the Great Depression.

The world is once again at a historically critical juncture. An insufficient response to this crisis can put countries on downward pathways, deepening inequality, intensifying public discontent and weakening trust in institutions.

At the same time, the tragedy of COVID-19 is ushering in a fresh awareness of the social and economic risks we run with deficient social protection systems and inadequate public services. The crisis also demonstrates the indispensable role of collective action and global collaboration.

This new mindset can transform our world, making the COVID-19 pandemic a watershed moment in history, after which the world collectively embarked upon building more equitable societies and aligned its policies with the aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Access the new policy brief on COVID-19 and inequality on UN DESA’s dedicated web portal for COVID-19