By Norman Saadi Nikro, 29 April 2020
In the last few weeks many have commented that the coronavirus is effectively an “equaliser,” meaning that it does not differentiate between a person’s status, identity, and disposition. While this is undoubtedly true, it is also patently false, as the potential to be infected and recover from the virus has much dependence on a person’s access to health facilities and provisions of care.
This is because health and care are politically, economically, socially and culturally structured and dispensed, according to glaring inequalities of distribution. Thus, the likelihood of a person to be infected and capacity to survive the “equaliser” depends on circumstances by which the virus transpires as an unequaliser.
Compare, for example, the circumstances of Palestinians in Gaza, or asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos, to Berlin where I live. As reported in the Jerusalem Post (March 30, 2020), there are six ventilators in Gaza, whose population numbers around 2 million. The situation for the Moria camp in Lesbos is perhaps even more dire, with 19,000 refugees cramped into a very tight space without any adequate health facilitates. In Berlin, as in Germany more generally, there is such an abundance of ventilators (at least for now) that proposals are being made to share them with other countries (hopefully with Gazan’s as well). But the relatively capacious built environment and spatial exercise of personal comportment makes physical distancing (or social distancing, as it is called) in Berlin easier to practice.
A significant effect of the coronavirus concerns how it is putting into relief glaring inequalities, as well as the conventions by which inequalities are legitimised and justified. In other words, the consequences of a supposedly natural, equalising phenomenon are socially, politically, and economically structured and distributed.
Indeed, the virus points to the interconnectedness of inequalities in distributions of health care and employment. Here in Berlin, for example, my purchasing power is structurally connected to low wage and poor working conditions in other parts of the world. Some of the clothes of my children, for instance, carry labels that they are made in either Bangladesh or Vietnam. According to an Oxfam Australia report of 2019, Made in Poverty: The True Price of Fashion, employees of textile manufacturing shops in Bangladesh and Vietnam are paid very little and have no paid sick leave. Of course, the real value of my purchasing power in Berlin is connected to, even dependent on, the low wages and poor health provisions of such workers.
Having both moral and utilitarian implications, the coronavirus reminds us of such interconnections. Privileged as I am in respect to benefits of sick leave and medical care, my health remains connected to the capacities of others, living and working in more difficult circumstances. As many commentators have pointed out over the last few weeks, social distancing is not an option for millions of people who, because of a lack of adequate economic care, cannot afford to stop going to work. Government provisions to provide economic support for small business and the self-employed, while important, is also a symptom of inadequate distributions and management of social and health resources. Amidst the dramatic rise of unemployment, the inadequately employed are the first to become unemployed.
In a related vein, one of the more dramatic consequences of the coronavirus is how its planetary reach inadvertently effects the global scale of environmental degradation. It is almost as though nature can no longer tolerate the way “we” (by which I mainly mean my older, first world generation that benefited from the rampant consumption and pollution of the second half of the twentieth-century) have brought about the disastrous effects of global warming, and has decided to take matters in its own hands, grounding airplanes and interrupting wasteful patterns of production and consumption. It is estimated that the coronavirus has brought about a 25% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
It is somewhat of a strange occurrence that the virus arose in one of the busiest and industrialised cities of the world, the central Chinese city of Wuhan, which is also a major hub of transport connection. As my teenage daughter Lelia informs me, the air over the city has greatly improved, with a radical drop in levels of nitrogen dioxide gases (caused by the burning of fuel). This is not to heap blame or responsibility on Wuhan, but to remark on the uncanny way in which the virus itself has brought about reductions in pollution.
In their planetary reach, both the coronavirus and environmental degradation do not respect borders and boundaries. To my mind, the two effects of the coronavirus I outlined above—foregrounding inequalities in the distribution and access of health, care, and employment, and the global scale of environmental degradation—need to be connected in arguments for meaningful change. Just as my purchasing power relies on global inequalities in conditions of work and health care, my health is also connected to the ways in which health care is managed in other parts of the world.
Considering the many virus outbreaks since the turn of the current century, Covid-19 won’t be the last. Addressing inequalities in the way in which health, work, and wealth are unequally distributed across the planet has become all the more urgent.
Oxfam Australia. Made in Poverty: The True Price of Fashion. https://whatshemakes.oxfam.org.au
Tovah Lazaroff, “UN Official: Coronavirus spike could cause collapse of Gaza health system”. Jerusalem Post, March 30, 2020.
PD Dr. Norman Saadi Nikro is research fellow at ZMO. His current research project is entitled Edward Said: Intersecting Pathways, Knowledge and Biographical Inventories in a Geographical Register.