Empty streets, canceled flights, and online meetings: these are the realities that most people are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is one of the biggest disruptions in recent human history, with many countries enforcing city and country-wide lockdowns. Airlines are taking a hit as world travel stalls; schools struggle to provide and operate online learning systems; offices are forced to work from home. These tangible changes, although enough to cause distress, are only a temporary break from reality for many. Life goes on(line). However, while the coronavirus has taken center stage in local and world news, we have seldom seen its human impact, especially on people who cannot afford to protect themselves.
South Korea is one of the few countries that have not resorted to strict authoritarian measures to contain the spread of the virus. Italy, the US, the Philippines, and some European countries have tightened controls on local transportation and mass gatherings. The resounding order was this: stay home, avoid non-essential travel — including for work and school. These measures are certainly necessary in the fight against the coronavirus, but rarely did governments address the needs of people with few financial resources. Staying home is an option, but what if you do not have a roof over your head? Working from home is a luxury for white-collar workers, but what about the informal workers, the people living paycheck to paycheck?
In fact, the ways in which the spread of a pandemic is contained do not take into account the most vulnerable groups — the working class and the poor. Many countries with a high income gap also have poor healthcare infrastructure and insurance systems. Health facilities lack the capacity to treat a surge of patients, and people without enough resources cannot afford to receive tests and treatments from hospitals. Even if vaccines became available, distribution would most likely follow economic rules, further limiting the choices available to poorer individuals. Economic capability is further reduced as work becomes scarce for people who operate outside the nine-to-five offices or lack steady jobs. It then comes down to a vicious cycle in which vulnerable groups do not have the money to pay for even necessary resources, leaving them more exposed to health risks.
"This virus has taken a toll on the existing frailties of our society"
We are already seeing this scenario play out in the time of COVID-19. In the US, workers in the service industry are facing layoffs and unpaid leave as restaurants, hotels, and the gig economy close down. Public transportation shut-down in the capital region of the Philippines is leaving hundreds of workers no choice but to walk several hours to their homes. The tourism industry is taking a major hit as world travel stalls. Hoarding and panic-buying of essentials such as masks, alcohols and hand sanitizers, and groceries are leaving none available for those who do not have the money to stockpile.
This virus has taken a toll on the existing frailties of our society. Most of all, it highlights the lack of consideration for those of lower economic standing — the group that falls further and further behind as the world grows more advanced. Now, they are given no choice and no room for protection, at the cost of their health — and even their lives. The system rigged against the poor must come to an end, now more than ever. Inequality is a difficult problem to tackle, but we must recognize the urgency for working solutions.
The COVID-19 crisis is much more than the rising numbers that we see everyday. It is taking root in the social and economic disparities that have long plagued society, enabling and exposing ingrained prejudice and inequality. In order to overcome these challenging times, we must find a solution — not just for the privileged few, but for everyone.