In Depth

Coronavirus: exposing class divides

‘White-collar quarantine’ means poorer people face greater risks

The new coronavirus has turned life upside down around the globe, confining millions to their homes, putting people out of work and hospitalising hundreds of thousands.

But while the impact has been felt widely, it has not necessarily been felt evenly. 

The New York Times says a “white-collar quarantine” has emerged, with divisions in wealth creating “a gulf between rich and poor in coping with disruptions”.

So how has the virus exposed the differences between the haves and have-nots?

The Financial Times says the coronavirus crisis “has highlighted how much of daily life and the real economy” is reliant on the lowest-paid workers, exacerbating “class friction” in Europe and beyond.

“Nurses, shop assistants, truck drivers, farm labourers [and] refuse collectors” have all been unable to stop working during the outbreak, the paper notes, while white-collar workers have been able to quarantine themselves safely at home.

In the UK, The Guardian reports, a study has found low-paid women are at a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19 as they are more likely to be in jobs such as social care, nursing and pharmacy. 

Out of 3.2 million workers employed in the highest-risk roles, as many as a million are among the lowest paid, according to Autonomy, an independent economics think-tank.

“This pandemic has exposed deep inequalities at the heart of our economy,” said Will Stronge, the director of Autonomy.  

“This study has shown not only that many of these occupations are at a high risk of exposure to the Covid-19 virus, but that they are often paid at poverty wages and are carried out overwhelmingly by women. It is about time we pay these workers properly for the valuable work they do.”

While, as the Daily Express notes, the middle class may experience damage to the value of “investments, pension pots and house values”, the report shows that poorer people are more likely to “regularly come into contact with diseases”, putting them at greater risk of illness.

The same theme is occurring across Europe, with the FT reporting that in Spain trade unions have complained that postal workers and supermarket staff are at a greater risk. 

The Spanish deputy prime minister and leader of the radical left Podemos party, Pablo Iglesias, has referred to “a war that doesn’t distinguish between territories, although sadly it does distinguish between social classes”.

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Writing in The Independent, Alexis Paton and Agomoni Ganguli-Mitra say “many of the measures being taken to stymie the pandemic will intensify existing health inequalities”.

“Lockdowns do not affect people equally,” they say, noting that “not everyone has a garden, a partner with whom to share childcare, or the money to compensate for the lack of supermarket choice that panic-buying has created”.

Drawing a comparison with the 1918 influenza pandemic, Derek Thompson, an economics writer at The Atlantic, notes that “like 102 years ago, this wave of the pandemic will almost certainly disproportionately punish the poor”.

As the pandemic spreads, Thompson writes, it could “supercharge inequality in the short term”, targeting “industries where workers are most vulnerable and have the least protection”.

While the coronavirus has exposed glaring inequalities within countries, there are also fears of a growing divide between how rich and poor nations will be affected by a sustained global lockdown.

The world’s biggest food companies have written to world leaders warning those suffering from chronic hunger could double unless steps are taken to keep the global food supply chain open, invest in environmentally sustainable food production and protect farmers.

“The risk of major interruptions to food supplies over the coming months is growing, especially for low-income net-food-importing countries, many of which are in sub-Saharan Africa,” the food industry leaders warn in their letter to G20 leaders, adding that “it would not be hard to envisage scenarios in which the number of people suffering from hunger on a daily basis, already estimated at over 800 million, doubles over the coming months, with a huge risk of increased malnutrition and child stunting”.

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