Coronavirus makes inequality a public health issue

public health 2020

(Phinehas Adams, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alexandre Kalache, President, International Longevity Centre-Brazil


  • In Brazil, science scepticism and political dogma have contaminated the debate about COVID-19.
  • Poverty in Brazil has risen by 33% in the last four years.
  • Public health experts must champion the urgent need to tackle social inequality.

“It may seem like a ridiculous idea but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” – Dr Rieux in Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague.

The COVID-19 crisis is producing some positive examples of global cooperation, but it is also exposing many fault lines and revealing some alarming tendencies. Resentment has been expressed by some of the hardest-hit EU states over a perceived lack of solidarity from neighbouring countries. Certain US states are engaged in a bidding war against each other for personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical hardware that has raised prices.

Urgent national public health decisions in the US have become mired in political partisanship. In Brazil, science scepticism and political dogma have contaminated the national debate about COVID-19. All over the world, there are legitimate concerns that the ring-fencing of communities and the closure of borders for purposes of containment will also reinforce tribalism and xenophobia. There is unease that suspensions of civil liberties may embolden authoritarianism and there is reason to fear a global increase in inter-generational suspicion and division. Ageism is rampant.

For decades to come our collective actions and lack of action will be debated, but some lessons are already evident. The most compelling is that extreme inequality does not work for anybody in this COVID-19 era. Even the most privileged cannot build their walls high enough to isolate themselves from epidemics – whether those walls are within or between territories. Just as 19th Century public health specialists championed the urgent improvement of housing and sanitation, public health specialists of the 21st Century must champion the urgent need to tackle social inequality – for the same reasons of generalized public welfare. Furthermore, that effort must be global.

COVID-19 is now rapidly expanding into the developing world. China apart, with its particularities and vast financial reserves, Brazil is the first major emerging economy to find itself on the front-line. The context is different and challenging. Brazil has consistently ranked among the most unequal countries in the world since data became available in the 1980s. Yet, income inequality in Brazil increased in the last quarter of 2019 for the nineteenth consecutive quarter – representing the most sustained trend ever recorded in the country’s history.

Economist Marcelo Neri has observed that from 2014 to 2019, the labour income of the poorest half of the Brazilian population fell by 17.1% while the income of the richest 1% rose by 10.1% – in a setting where the richest 5% of Brazilians already have an income equal to the remaining 95% of the population. Poverty in Brazil has risen by 33% in the last four years alone. 6.3 million Brazilians – equivalent to the entire population of Switzerland – swelled the ranks of the poor in this period.

Instructions to forego income generation, to stay at home, and to practise social distancing ring hollow for tens of millions of Brazilians who lead precarious hand-to-mouth working lives and reside in crowded, multi-generational households within densely populated communities. COVID-19 is arriving on top of income, housing and food vulnerabilities; weak infrastructure; poor governance; and, all too often, a background of criminal extortion.

The Brazilian Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has predicted that the country’s fragile health system, already depleted by severe budget cuts in recent years, will collapse by the end of April. He said: “You can have the money, you can have a private plan, you can have a court order, but there is simply no room for you.”

According to a paper by the Centre for Applied Macroeconomics and the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil’s gross domestic product may shrink by 4.4% in 2020. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) expects income losses as a result of COVID-19 in developing countries to exceed $220 billion. New analysis from the United Nations trade and development body (UNCTAD) predicts that commodity-exporting countries will face a $2-$3 trillion drop in investment from overseas over the next two years.

The UNDP said: “With an estimated 55% of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights, and in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

For decades the insistent call within health policy circles has been for evidence-based actions. Quite understandably, it has become the mantra of the scientific community. The call must now be for evidence-based politics. The empirical data exists. We know that extreme inequality causes costly, multi-level social dysfunction; that it is harmful to everyone; that it can be corrected; and that the benefits of that correction will be widely shared.

We know that more equal societies are more cohesive and productive and less violent and anxious. Reducing inequality is not an assault on the market but a defence of it. The COVID-19 crisis adds a note of drama and urgency to the need of such actions.

Clearly, developed countries have more than their share of challenges relating to COVID-19 but it is vital that good global citizenship does not become a casualty amid their internal preoccupations. According to the UNDP: “Without support from the international community developing countries risk a massive reversal of gains made over the last two decades, and an entire generation lost, if not in lives then in rights, opportunities and dignity”.

COVID-19 highlights our interconnectedness. Robust collective actions to respond to both the immediate and coming challenges are urgent. They must also comprehensively redefine the paradigms of global public health.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

China Unlimited: an exclusive interview with the former Ambassador of Hungary to China

Healthcare workers’ safety: a forgotten necessity

Understanding the ‘second brain’ in your gut

5 things to know about the exploding world of pro gaming

First EU-wide protection for whistle-blowers agreed

The EU has to prove it can remain one piece

These 8 countries have perfect scores for women’s rights at work

International Women’s Day: Where does she belong?

Africa-Europe Alliance: European Commission committed to a sustainable African agri-food sector

4 things ISPs can do to reduce the impact of cybercrime

Trump ‘used’ G20 to side with Putin and split climate and trade packs

State aid: Commission opens in-depth investigation into arbitration award in favour of Antin to be paid by Spain

Vile act of torture prohibited ‘under all circumstances’, UN chief affirms on International Day to support victims

3 ways to ensure the internet’s future is creative, collaborative and fair

This lethal fungus is threatening to wipe out the world’s bananas

EU food watchdog: more transparency, better risk prevention

New rules on drivers’ working conditions and fair competition in road transport

Help African farmers cope with climate change threats, UN food agency urges

Why cybersecurity matters more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic

Europe eyes to replace US as China’s prime foreign partner

3 ways to make technologies more inclusive for people with disabilities

Confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine grows in UK and US, but global concerns about side effects are on the rise

Preventing and resolving conflicts must form ‘backbone’ of collective efforts – UN chief

UPDATED: Thousands flee fighting around Libyan capital as Guterres condemns escalation, urges ‘immediate halt’ to all military operations

How emerging markets will shape Africa in 2020

5 factors driving the Chinese lawtech boom

This tool shows you which cities will flood as ice sheets melt

High-tech or ‘high-touch’: UK survey gives clues to the jobs of the future

Security Council urges ‘maximum restraint’ around Gulf region as Iran and United States trade diplomatic blows in New York

EU Parliament says ‘no’ to austerity budget

ISIS fighters fleeing Mosul for Syria can topple Assad. Why did the US now decide to uproot them from Iraq?

China and China-EU Relations in the New Era

5 things you might not know about forests – but should

More hiring freedom can reduce teacher shortages in disadvantaged areas

When it comes to envirotech adoption, NGOs can lead us out of the woods

‘Extinction crisis’ pushes countries to agree stronger protection for global wildlife

Why we need both science and humanities for a Fourth Industrial Revolution education

The digital transformation is a skills and education opportunity for all. Companies must use it

European Commission increases support for the EU’s beekeeping sector

Building a Climate-Resilient Future – A new EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change

The UK option: An overarching alternative for the whole Brexit options

‘The time for action is now’ senior UN peacekeeping official says, urging support for regional force combating Sahel terrorism

Mediterranean migrant drownings should spur greater action by European countries, urge UN agencies

Carbon levy on EU imports needed to raise global climate ambition

Iran: women hunger strikers entitled to medical care, UN rights experts urge

It is now the era to evolve mutually as the bacteria do

COVID-19: Revised rules to encourage banks to lend to companies and households

Fashion’s hot new trend: clothes you don’t need to wash (very often)

Stronger partnerships with post-conflict countries needed to ensure ‘path towards durable peace’: UN chief

Republic of Korea President proposes DMZ as future ‘peace and cooperation district’ on Peninsula

Women’s work faces the greatest risk of automation, says new research

May led Britain to chaos, now looks for way out with unpredictable DUP

We must rethink and repurpose cybersecurity for the COVID-19 era

EU-Turkey relations: EU considers imposing sanctions while Turkey keeps violating Cyprus’ sovereignty

National parks give a $6 trillion boost to mental health worldwide

Here’s how data can shine a light on financial crime

Will Eurozone be able to repay its debts? Is a bubble forming there?

Eight years in, Syria still embroiled in conflict ‘that no longer sparks outrage’, Security Council hears

Difficulties of vaccination against COVID-19

Services are the hidden side of the US-China trade war

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s