Addressing the United States in a press conference on March 29, President Donald Trump voiced what has been (guiltily) running through most of our heads over the last several weeks: “I wish we could have our old life back.” As we begin to acclimatise to the new normal in which a daily headline scan seems to drag us further and further away from the life we lived a few months ago, this is an enticing thought to cling onto. Yet, such thinking is equally as dangerous as it is comforting. Displays of graffiti appeared last month across metro stations in Hong Kong translating to: “There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.” Whilst not quite so comforting a thought, it is, day by day, becoming a more pertinent one.
The global fallout that we have witnessed over the past month has been overwhelming. At the time of writing, the global death toll stands at an estimated 252,976, with the total number of infections well on its way to 4 million. Economies are floundering, countries are being thrown into deep recession and the “invisible enemy” that politicians have introduced in endless press conferences is suddenly very much distinguishable. In the UK, it is estimated that unemployment will rise by 5 million to more than 6 million by the end of this month. One fifth of renters have had to choose between paying for food and bills and paying their landlords this month. Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, has reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day. Meanwhile, for others, Zoom pub quizzes and baking banana bread has become the new daily routine.
Low socio-economic status sits right alongside old-age and pre-existing health conditions as a risk factor for fatality as a result of infection with COVID-19. People who live precarious existences at the lower ends of society financially, are 10% more likely to have a chronic health condition, revealing the colossal disparities of health and wealth across the globe. Those who are most vulnerable to this pandemic have the least resources with which they can shield themselves. Those who have suffered and will suffer most from this crisis are those least equipped to recover from it.
Coronavirus has been labelled as some kind of societal leveller, an equaliser that does not discriminate. This could not be more untrue. This pandemic has carved each crevice of inequality in society even deeper; the devastating effects that have unfolded over the last two months have been distributed along existing fault lines. Unemployment is not a new phenomenon. Neither is eviction. Nor is domestic abuse, restricted access to healthcare or rough sleeping. All of these issues were rife in the UK before any of us had ever heard the word coronavirus; they have just been easier to ignore until now. The safety nets that governments have put in place to help people as this crisis unfolds will not catch everyone because so many were already falling long before the coronavirus outbreak. This pandemic has not created new inequalities, it has exacerbated old ones. It has confronted us with what we have for so long held at arms length: our society is fundamentally unstable because of the foundation of inequality upon which it has been built and by which it is fuelled. A society and an economy already withered by austerity politics is not a population prepared to deal with a pandemic, but rather a balancing act of precarity set to crumble under any form of excess strain.
Social and economical contours that have been traced over again and again continue to fracture the UK as we are still very much held in the painful grip of this pandemic. The way that our societies function, feeding off of inequality, has exponentially worsened this crisis and the question begs, why has it taken such an extremity for us to realise how unbalanced the playing field is?
It is still unclear what the world will look like when the dust finally begins to settle, but it is certain that for many people it will be immeasurably more difficult. When we begin to rebuild our lives and societies again, we cannot revert back to the old ways of thinking that pushed so many people into positions of intense vulnerability. It is time to question a society that allowed such fierce inequality, because for the millions of people who have already become collateral damage, it is too late.
Image: CDC via Pexels