The myth of the great equalizer
COVID 19 is not the great equalizer. Yes, the virus will find you a suitable host regardless of the size of your wealth. It does not care whether you have a PhD or have never stepped into a formal school. It does not matter if you are a prime minister or if you are the marginalized that the government has ignored for generations, so far, the evidence is that every human (and now animals too), is potentially susceptible. And therein lies the false narrative of the equalizer concept. COVID 19 is not the great equalizer because the inequalities that have long existed are still here. The pandemic is highlighting them even more.
The equalizer concept is often presented as a feel-good attempt to say that we can all unite under the banner of humanity to fight this one common enemy. But to me, animal farm is what comes to mind….some of us are a bit more equal than others. Meaning, while the virus may not discriminate, society still does. Structural discriminations manifest in different ways and have unpredictable ripple effects.
In the early days, we saw that that testing was not available to everyone. If you are considered a VIP, you were tested much more quickly, (see – Why NBA players can get coronavirus tests but regular Americans are struggling to; VIPs go to the head of the line for coronavirus tests). If you have health insurance and a private doctor, you have more access to health facilities. Sure, shelter in place is a great idea to flattening the curve, but what do you do when you have no shelter? (“Shelter in place” is impossible if you can’t afford a home; How Do You Shelter in Place When You Don’t Have a Home?). Yes, self-isolation protects all, unless you live in overcrowded projects, townships or informal settlement. We scream that hygienic practices are the best way to curb diseases but forget that some of us have been against social programs that make hygienic practices accessible to many of those with limited means. Of course, we can move schools online too, since technically the internet is available globally, but we forgot to provide electricity to the same people we want to get online. We have jovially celebrated the information superhighway, but true to the name, the highway does allow many to zoom by while those under the highway remain in their cardboard boxes, and many more left wanting because no entry ramps exist from their communities. So no, COVID-19 is not the great equalizer! It is instead the great revealer!
COVID-19 is the great revealer of the inequalities, foolishness and also of the incredible common human decency. Inequalities have been persistent at global, regional, national and individual levels. In the US, for example, persistent inequalities are cited as one of the reasons why black Americans are disproportionately affected compared to other groups. This passage from a story in the New York times highlights just one way that corona is not an equalizer
“For many public health experts, the reasons behind the disparities are not difficult to explain, the result of longstanding structural inequalities. At a time when the authorities have advocated staying home as the best way to avoid the virus, black Americans disproportionately belong to part of the workforce that does not have the luxury of working from home, experts said. That places them at high risk for contracting the highly infectious disease in transit or at work.”
In China, foolishness manifest itself through racism targeted towards Africans. #AfricansinChina is one of the hashtags on twitter that details the stories. COVID-19 is making it hard to ignore the inequalities that exist in terms of who has access to quality health care or who around the world is really getting a living wage. It is forcing governments to come to terms with lack of preparedness, and to take stock of national priorities. At the same time, it is highlighting common human decency as reflected in acts of kindness. Healthcare workers are putting in extra hours and risking their own lives to help others. Some university labs are printing shields and mask for hospitals. Some are sewing masks for each other, teachers are sharing lessons, experts are freely volunteering, and so many more random acts of kindness are felt but go without the doer receiving credit. There is an aspect of unity that is being seen as a result COVID, but that too is not equal.
I do hope that COVID-19 moves us closer towards finding that great equalizer solution; whereby we address the injustices that lead to so many inequalities. I do hope that post COVID, we will examine the system in which we exist and not ignore the inequalities that replicate themselves generation after generation. I hope that we will look more to sustain human decency and recognize our shared humanity. Until that happens, “it is a cruel jest” (as Martin Luther King once said) to say that we are all in this together while ignoring the glaring inequities that point to quite the opposite.