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How Governments Can Use COVID-19 to Address Social Inequality

by Earth.Org Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania Jan 15th 20214 mins
How Governments Can Use COVID-19 to Address Social Inequality

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the disparities that exist within society, and it has exacerbated them. Certainly, even before COVID-19, these existed, albeit more quietly, yet no less pervasively. Graduates earned 60% more than non-graduates in the UK, and 80% more in the US. However, we have seen mass mobilisations by governments to ease financial burdens of many, showing their power to quickly intervene to mitigate distress. How can governments use COVID-19 to address social inequality in their countries?

Some areas where this has been made abundantly clear are:

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What Can We Do?

In the wake of the pandemic, many countries have unveiled public policy responses aimed at supporting citizens facing economic hardships, through being furloughed, having their hours reduced or losing their jobs altogether. While they won’t last forever, they show the power of government to intervene to mitigate distress. 

Firstly, the healthcare system in the US needs reform; many people lost their health insurance along with their jobs, meaning that many of the hundreds of thousands who were hospitalised are unable to pay their medical bills. 

Secondly, according to Business Insider, in the US, 40 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, while billionaires saw their net worth increase by half a trillion dollars. One of the reasons for this is that the government disproportionately gives more aid to larger companies. Hopefully, this will bolster demands for more regulation and that their companies pay more taxes. There is also an urgent need to rethink how labour markets work. 

While high-income countries have quickly mobilised massive public resources in response to the economic crisis as a result of the pandemic, lower income countries are unable to do so. High-income countries, International Financial Institutions (IFI) and regional economic bodies should mobilise adequate resources in support of lower-income countries in order to avoid similar or worse economic crises with negative long-term implications for agriculture, food security, nutrition, food systems and broader socio-economic development. 

In terms of providing this aid to low-income countries, processes to ensure that no corruption takes place is vital. In Africa specifically, there are billions of illegal dollars that are funnelled abroad, often with the help of complicit or negligent banks, lawyers, accountants and real estate agents. 

Additionally, existing inequalities need to be recognised in the public response- explicitly acknowledging the heightened health and economic vulnerabilities of specific socioeconomic groups- and addressed with targeted measures. Policies should take into account the constraints faced by the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in responding to the pandemic. While meeting immediate needs is naturally the priority, planning needs to begin in terms of how to promote an inclusive and equitable process of economic recovery. Recovery programmes that do not address these inequalities run the risk of reinforcing and deepening inequalities into the future.

Finally, it is hoped that COVID-19 will create reforms in governments themselves; in the US, president-elect Joe Biden has nominated officials to his cabinets, such as Janet Yellen and Cecilia Rouse, who have long been concerned with reducing inequalities. The Financial Times has termed this the “time for activist government.”

Increased social inequality from COVID-19 will have long-term consequences. Greater inequality reduces the impact of economic growth on poverty reduction, meaning that eventual economic recovery may have less impact on the poor and other marginalised groups, potentially leaving them worse off and facing greater inequality than before. If social inequality is not addressed, economic recovery will have less impact on reducing poverty brought on by COVID-19.

Featured image by: Flickr

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