Covid-19 and poverty.

“The disease is not a great leveler, the consequences of which everyone — rich or poor — suffers the same… This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health…What kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?”– Emily Maitlis (BBC host; you can join more than 2 million others, and see the one-minute video here.)

“The poor you will always have with you.”– Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 26:11a, NIV)

Emily Maitlis nailed it. But what are the chances we’ll act as individuals and nations on her advice? Taken out of context (as it often is!), Jesus’ forecast, especially considering its source, is sobering[1]. Most of us are overwhelmed by the poverty’s pervasiveness and immense scale. Any individual contribution we might make to alleviate poverty seems too puny to matter. A minority of the most pessimistic or cynical therefore find free license to be totally unconcerned about poverty and the plight of the poor. But this mix of paralysis and contempt perpetuates and even aggravates the challenge. 

Fact is, the covid-19 experience ought to motivate the billions of us who are well off to do more to reduce the poverty in our midst. This is the lesson the pandemic has to teach us that matters most. 

The lesson begins at the very beginning – the origins of disease outbreaks. But it extends to transmission and spread, vulnerability, and impacts. 

Origin. Covid-19 and similar disease threats are often zoonotic; they originate in other animal species, and are subsequently transmitted from animals to humans. What’s more, much zoonosis occurs in pockets of poverty – where the health of humans and the neighboring agricultural and natural ecosystems have been compromised, where human-animal contact is close and uncontrolled, where bushmeat is a staple, and so on. Not only are such poorer populations and regions more vulnerable, they lack the public health infrastructure needed (1) for early detection of emergent disease and (2) to stem subsequent disease spread. This poses risks not just to people living at the site of origin, but, as we’ve seen, also to the larger world. 

Richer nations and peoples, aware of such perils, have for some time attempted –  through international agreements, through foreign aid, and through private donations – to build up monitoring and public health capacity in such danger zones. Efforts to contain Ebola outbreaks across Africa over recent years illustrate this. 

But often the foreign aid stops there. We’ve injected assets in this poorer world not to improve the circumstances of the hundreds of millions living under such conditions, but to merely to confine the public health risks there in order to prevent their spread to the larger, wealthier world. We, the affluent, do the minimum necessary a world away to protect ourselves at home.

Transmission and spread. Covid-19’s spread has been most rapid initially across the northern-hemisphere-developed nations. But now, even as the rich world’s concern is shifting to rebooting the global economy, the southern-hemisphere-developing world is only beginning to feel the full public-health impact. There the disease is encountering vulnerable populations, and razor-thin, fragile public-health and healthcare infrastructure. Losses will be severe and social consequences profound, but will struggle to get the rich world’s attention. Experts warn that failure to win the public health battle there will contribute to future, recurrent risks spanning the developed world in ensuing months.

The international impact. All this can and does build bitterness. Poorer nations and their peoples are by and large may be too preoccupied with the strains of meeting the needs of each day to do more than protest, but that doesn’t mean that they’re unaware of the great gap in human circumstances and prospects occasioned by accidents of birth. The emergence of social media and resultant spread of information means that such awareness – and the accompanying resentment and discontent – is growing, especially among the young. And one hallmark of disasters, whether flood or drought, or pandemic or financial-sector collapse, is that they aggravate and heighten preexisting inequalities. 

Statements such as “we’re all in it together,” ring true and serve as a rallying cry when they reflect society’s preexisting social contract under business-as-usual. But when and where our pre-disaster experience isn’t perceived by all parties as somewhere near “fair and just” (and/or tending toward equity), then those same words ring false. They exacerbate the pre-existing social divide. 

Fortunately, the world has been making progress in eradicating poverty over the past decade or so. But the rate of progress has shown signs of slowing in the past few years). And much remains to be done: improved nutrition doing the first few years of a child’s life, allowing proper brain development that will make a lifelong difference. Greater access to (better) public education, for children of both genders.

In light of covid-19, the World Economic Forum is calling for actionThe World Bank is mobilizing

The domestic impact. But the problem is not simply international. In every nation the covid-19 impact is borne disproportionally by the poor. Here in the United States, the news has distinguished between the fate and impact on those who can work at home, and for whom the impacts have been relatively benign, and those who’ve either found themselves unemployed or who are commuting to and laboring in risky, often crowded workplaces where social distancing isn’t a real option. The burden is especially heavy on healthcare workers and first responders and their families. U.S. news headlines of recent days have also focused with dismay on the staggering statistical disparity between the outcomes for African Americans versus Caucasians. We’re reminded that the higher vulnerability stems from years of economic inequity and its contributions to pre-existing conditions, unequal access to healthcare in the present day, and, in our racially polarized society, even to dangers from wearing face masks.

To sum up: To the extent the covid-19 pandemic rouses us from our collective complacency about the poverty and the plight of the poor worldwide, it will have vaccinated us against a wide range of larger threats posed to our security and well-being. That starts with a global threat of special consequence to our professional community: climate change.


[1]Though the context, especially during this Passover-Easter season, might lead us in a different direction. And meteorologists, especially, are by disciplinary training predisposed to see the power and potential influence of the small.

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