In medieval England plagues and epidemic diseases were a common scourge. More recently, however, outbreaks like Ebola happened in far-away regions of the Global South. Now the impact of disease (as of climate change) is being felt closer to home. Suburban roads melt in heat waves, storms flood the Peak District, and fires rage in Australia, while coronavirus reminds us of smallpox before that disease was understood.
Nobody has a vaccine or immunity, and apart from self-isolation, the state of New York is about as helpless today as the city of London was in the autumn of 1348 when it locked its gates against the Black Death.
History shows that the rich and powerful were not exempt from smallpox or bubonic plague. Today’s media like to suggest that Covid-19 is no exception to this age-old rule of epidemiology. We are told that the virus must be an equal-opportunity infection, a great leveller, because Boris Johnson, Tom Hanks and Idris Elba have all tested positive.
An important clue lies in that word ‘tested’ – because, as with so much else in this age of inequality, the rich and the poor have very different options when it comes to dealing with the infection.
Our government’s failure to roll out mass testing has been a national scandal.
This virus doesn’t level anything. It merely reinforces pre-existing inequality and injustice, widening social and economic divisions that contrive to make the virus even more deadly than it would be in a less polarised society.
The pandemic frightens the old and inconveniences the wealthy but it’s the young and the low-paid who will pay the price once we exit lockdown into the ruins of economic collapse.
In the meantime, bankers’ children play in spacious gardens while their poorer counterparts are stuck in overcrowded high-rise flats, unable to visit the park and perhaps fearful of abuse, as their mothers may also be.
Because gig economy workers and the self-employed don’t get sick pay, they often have to agonise over whether to heed medical advice or report for work.
After years of being undervalued and underpaid, nurses, care workers, bus drivers and supermarket cashiers get a round of applause every Thursday evening, but still have to put their own health at risk for low reward, due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
It is true that Covid-19 has no regard for class and also attacks the lungs of the 10% of the world’s population that controls 90% of the planet’s wealth. But it’s not true that ‘we’re all in this together.’
Try telling that to the millions of people living in the slums and shanty towns of Delhi or Sao Paolo where social distancing is a sick joke, and the instruction to wash your hands is meaningless due to the absence of running water.
According to a recent study in a British medical journal, such communities are caught in a ‘disease-driven poverty trap’ in which declining economic status leads to rising rates of chronic illness, which in turn depresses earnings, leading to more poverty and consequently more disease.
This closed loop of inequality helps to multiply the spread and deadliness of the virus.
The Covid-19 outbreak underlines a stark fact. Global inequality is itself like a disease that has spread exponentially over the past four decades. The incubation period was during the 1980s when right-wing politicians around the world began to dismantle the welfare system in favour of big capital and the private sector.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, for which big capital was to blame, inequality has continued to increase worldwide. Let’s hope the Covid-19 pandemic acts as a wake-up call, finally drawing a line under the neo-liberal consensus that has prioritised profits over people’s lives for too long.
The global response to the coronavirus crisis shows that governments can take radical economic measures in order to protect against a short-term emergency. Once the crisis is over, we need to shift global attention back to the long-term emergency of climate change.
New economic thinking is needed, including a transition to sustainable degrowth.
In the post-pandemic world the Alliance for Green Socialism will campaign to stop governments, big banks and financial markets imposing austerity measures as the only way to recover from an unprecedented recession.
The global lockdown has shown that our collective action can be decisive. It’s a lesson we should never forget when it comes to fighting inequality and climate change.