COVID-19 pandemic exposes world-wide inequality

Okot Nyormoi

Okot Nyormoi is a retired cancer research scientist 

COVID-19 first appeared early December 2019 as a mysterious respiratory disease in Wuhan Province China. By December 20, 2019, there were 60 confirmed cases. It did not attract much world attention and was dismissed as another flu that would soon disappear.

Within a month, thousands of people were infected and were dying daily in Asia, in the Middle East and in Europe. But still, America and Africa, had few confirmed cases of infection. In his characteristic manner, Trump announced that the epidemic will soon disappear and praised China for doing a great job to contain the virus.

Soon, the internet was awash with conspiracy theories that: the coronavirus epidemic was a hoax, caused radiation released by 5G cables, and a Bill Gate’s vaccine scheme to control the population of third world counties. Others claimed that Africans were immune to the virus.

On January 30th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern. By March 11th, it was declared a pandemic. As the disease continued to ravage the world, travel restrictions came into force.

Air travelers were upset and considered travel bans a terrible inconvenience. The poor in developing countries considered the ban a good thing, because neither the politically connected nor the financially powerful would now be able go for shopping or for medical treatment abroad. People hoped that the pandemic would now force the elites to improve local health services for everyone.

By the time the disease hit its stride in the USA, many African countries still had just single digit numbers of infection cases or death. Consequently, some people thought that for once, Africans were not disproportionately suffering from a disease pandemic. Coronavirus was hailed in some quarters as the great equalizer. Some people were satisfied that the virus did not discriminate between gender and nationality.

But, is coronavirus really the great equalizer? Examination of the mounting data should show whether coronavirus is a great equalizer. Superficially, it looked like everybody and every country was equally vulnerable. It is now clear that countries like the USA and cities like New York with heavy human traffic are a lot more vulnerable than those like South Sudan in which there is little movement.

In the USA state of Louisiana, as of April 12, 70% of the COVID-19 casualties were black people. This is not due to the abundance of melanin, but the disproportionately high cases of pre-existing conditions resulting from years of discrimination and disadvantage. Also, working as care givers and traveling by public transport, exposes them to high risks of infection.

Countries like Italy suffered more deaths because it has the oldest population. Prisoners in the USA consist mostly of minorities and are disproportionately vulnerable to coronavirus infection. Migrants who work in farms and meat processing and packing plants are also disproportionately vulnerable.

Obviously, the availability and access to healthcare are not equal between or within all countries. In the USA, when tests for the virus first became available, only sports superstars, the wealthiest or the most powerful people had access to them. Without a car, one could not easily access the drive through testing facilities. Undocumented immigrants dare not show up for fear of arrest and deportation.

In the developing countries where medical services are already inadequate, ventilators which are essential for treating severe cases of COVID-19, are woefully inadequate, if not missing altogether. Earlier, a country like Uganda had only 12 ventilators. More than 80% of the ventilators were concentrated in the big city, Kampala. Entebbe was also the only testing site. It is conceivable that the situation in other countries is even worse.

The effect of mitigation measures on the economy ranks high along with the horrific number of sick and dead people. The closure of non-essential businesses to mitigate the pandemic had a catastrophic but unequal effect on the world economy. Whereas big businesses and wealthy people have not only enough money but also the technology to continue doing business from home, many small businesses shut down. Millions of workers were devastated by their precipitous job loss. In the USA alone, the unemployment went from 3.5% to 14.5% within two months. In developing countries where the unemployment is always high, it now runs in the 30 plus percentages.

Without income, the working class are unable to pay their rents, mortgages, debts, school fees, insurance premiums, etc. Most importantly, food insecurity spiraled to an astronomical level. In the USA, food lines in some cities like El Paso stretched for miles. In developing countries, the urban poor are threatened with starvation because they cannot afford to buy food nor can they travel to the countryside searching for food. Promised food assistance is either not delivered, abused or non-existent in most cases.

Rich people have many options such as cars to drive around, home swimming pools, tennis courts, gymnasium, board games, etc. to entertain themselves during the lockdown; poor people do not have such options. People with money can order food delivered to their homes or drive to pick it up from restaurants; poor people cannot. Individuals and countries with easy access to the internet can continue to conduct classes online; the poor cannot.

Staying at home all day and night around children and spouses without income and options has increased the rates of domestic violence, suicide, drug abuse, and homelessness particularly among the poor.

Though the virus is perceived to be non-discriminatory, it fractured international cooperation and brought ultra-nationalism to the fore. Europeans unabashedly reacted by evacuating only their citizens, while leaving other nationalities to fend for themselves in Wuhan city. Migrants and particularly Africans, in China, were viewed as the ones spreading the disease. They were restricted from going to supermarkets and racial slurs were hurled at them without provocation.

COVID-19 pandemic is clearly not the great equalizer it was thought to be. Instead, it is the great light that shone brightly on the inequality existing in the world. Will the world see it and change it? Time will tell.