Pandemic of Inequality Won’t Let Us Breathe

Illustration by Parag Dabke.

The world we live in is getting scarier as disturbing events unfold. Floyd’s gruesome killing has sparked fierce reactions globally and we are now left tracing its roots to the long-standing racial prejudices that have existed alongside decades of material prosperity. We know this could be traced to British colonialism in the Americas and the Caribbean and its role in setting up systems of apartheid in the Africas that continue even today, not just in the US but also UK and other parts of the world. This could be traced to the unequal societies and economic cultures that centuries of unbridled capitalism have created. This could be pinned on the collective failure of the governments to act in the interest of black and ethnic minorities and to work on dismantling the racial, class and caste biases that often creep into policing and administration of justice. There are a whole lot more other explanations, each one more searing than the other, which make one thing undoubtedly clear: George Floyd’s murder cannot be dismissed as a standalone American problem because it is not. In many ways, we have collectively felt the need to call out the multiple inequalities embedded in our societies, from caste prejudice and religious bigotry in the East further accentuated by the pandemic to racism and ethnic violence in the West.

All the rioting, police violence and protests over violation of civil rights have led us to a very dangerous place – democracies may fall, the continuing chaos could facilitate a consolidation of right-wing extremism, and whip up social unrest globally. The economic fragility is threatening to pull societies apart, and institutions and existing health infrastructure are already under strain. Some of the biggest democracies in the world have been dealing with political and social unrest for a while now, and Covid-19 has only worsened the crises. The global economy is heading into a recession; 195 million jobs are expected to be lost worldwide; domestic violence and child abuse are on the rise; alcoholism and depression have found new reasons to thrive; and US-China relations are almost on the brink of war threatening to unsettle the prevailing world order. This could very well be the beginning of the making of revolutions that could shift economic and social cultures globally.

To make matters worse, there are depressing precedents for health crises to become an excuse for curtailing civil liberties. Often, contagion has been used by authoritarian regimes to justify the control of people and suppression of human rights, as is the case with many countries today, and to dump science and facts in favour of dominant politics of the day. Around the world, governments have worked to put strict lockdown measures in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some instances, this has come about within a day’s notice. Racial bias in policing is already at the centre of the ongoing protests in the US, with research already disputing the charge. All of these will worsen inequality; in the words of economist Arthur Okun, underlining this feels like watching the grass grow.

For long, we have been told and I have truly believed, getting everyone to become rich is just a matter of sincere efforts. Yet, time and again, especially after Thomas Piketty’s seminal work on inequality, we have realised that this is not necessarily true. From US President Barack Obama to Alan Krueger, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in 2012, world leaders for quite some time have known that high income inequality is increasingly synonymous with the least equality of opportunity, and great wealth accumulation with least competition. Yet, economists have been divided in the decades since, often questioning the data and other assumptions made in the research on inequality. As a consequence, inequality hadn’t been treated as a severe economic and social challenge until Piketty and Saz made it fashionable. In the Global South where inequality has been spiralling out of control, this has had debilitating effects on poverty, hunger and unemployment with the exception of China. Covid-19 has once again brought inequality to the fore. In countries like India where politics always dominates the economics, inequality has the chance to be at the forefront of policymaking for the threat it poses to democracy.

As countries plunge into uncertainties of all hues, let us step back a little to think about the pandemics in history and how they affected global inequality.

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