It’s a myth that a virus which strikes presidents and princes doesn’t discriminate. The pandemic has widened inequality and increased division in many ways. It was unequal in those it killed, hitting so much harder in ethnic communities.
It targeted the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, often because the circumstances of their lives simply increased their exposure to infection. They are more likely to live in cramped and crowded conditions; more likely to do jobs which can’t be done from home; and more unlikely to have access to the best health care.
Data shows that the top 25% income group and the bottom 25% lived very different lives through the crisis. The pandemic was a parallel universe where experiences were determined by income, skin color, or gender.
Following are five ways that inequality will widen the divides as we move into the second year of the pandemic.
The Black Hole of Unemployment
Leena Nair, the Chief Human Resources Officer for Unilever, has responsibility across one hundred countries where the multinational company makes and sells its four hundred household name brands. She says we are “staring into one of the defining challenges of our times, which is unemployment. We need to really lean into it and solve the social inequality.”
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities claims that in February 2021, nearly 38 million people in America lived in a family where at least one member didn’t have paid work because of the pandemic. Those in low paid jobs are far more likely to be laid off. The International Labor Organization cites “unprecedented job losses” for 114 million people worldwide in 2020. They were highest in the Americas and worst for women, in what some are now calling the “shecession.”
Sacha Romanovitch was once on the global board of accountancy for the firm Grant Thornton. She now works in the not-for-profit sector driving change to help poorer people get fairer access to finance. She says, “Sixty percent of the people losing their jobs right now are on low incomes. We’re talking about people who barely have a can of beans. Society’s answer is a sticking plaster of support rather than a proper safety net.”
One hundred thirty countries have not yet seen one dose of the vaccine. The United Nations describes this as “widely uneven and unfair.” Probably half those countries won’t stick any jabs in any arms in 2021. Ten countries have administered 75% of the doses so far.
Gary Liu worked at Spotify and Digg before becoming CEO of The South China Morning Post. He says, “The speed to get to the vaccine determines the speed of economic recovery because getting everyone back to work the way that we’ve had in the past is going to require a fully vaccinated population. There are going to be countries that come out of this many years faster than other countries. And the countries that are going to come out of this faster will be the ones that are already developed and economically stronger. The inequality issue is going to be so much larger.” Liu also cites how the last year has highlighted that access to public healthcare must now become “a basic human right.”
Homeworking, home schooling, and the shift to virtual living has magnified the many aspects of digital inequality. Access to broadband and ownership of laptops is simply beyond the financial reach of huge swathes of the population. The internet is also technically out of reach for 42 million Americans.
Access to the virtual world is now as important as access to money and healthcare. It is also essential for so many jobs and companies which now exclusively inhabit the virtual world. It’s as important today to create internet access for all as it once was to wire every American home with electricity.
The solution could be for the big tech companies to pay for the poorest in society to access the internet. Government intervention is also required.
COVID has hit the finances of the world’s poorest countries. This could push 100 million more people into poverty. The International Monetary Fund has already had to help support 85 countries in dire straits. They’ve made available $250 billion and that could soar to $1 trillion as the economic consequences play out. Research from Concern Worldwide suggests that the consequences are a huge increase in those going hungry and a significant deterioration in children’s education. The next year may see a global humanitarian crisis to follow in the deathly footsteps of the health emergency.
Race and Gender
The pandemic heightened tensions and highlighted the woeful lack of progress on racial and gender equality. The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement was a seismic moment when racial injustice rose above the horrors of the health crisis. Much remains raw and unresolved.
Gender inequality was also brought into even sharper focus.
Vivienne Artz is an executive at the London Stock Exchange Group. As she points out, remote work has only increased the burden on women. “Women do up to ten times more unpaid work than men—whether that’s caring or food shopping or looking after children,” she notes. “If we can do a ‘lift and shift’ of most of the world’s workforce from the office to home in three or four days, we can do that to fix other issues around equality of opportunity. When there is an imperative, we can do it. There is an imperative now to fix these other things too.”
As today’s leaders overwhelmingly agree, we shouldn’t focus on getting back to where we were. We need to apply all the lessons we have learned from COVID to create a better world of work—and a better world for everyone.