When things became too much for Marie Darrieussecq, she fled to the countryside. Together with her husband and two children, she turned her back on the pandemic hotspot of Paris and escaped to her country home near Bayonne. She hid the car with Paris license plates in the garage, jumped in the second car and drove to the Basque coast. “The sea beats deep, strong and indifferently,” the novelist enthused in her diary, which she has published in the French daily Le Point. “The beach is deserted. I can imagine a planet without people.”
Coronavirus — a perfect chance to unwind.
Not, though, for everyone. Some 15 kilometers east of Paris on a recent Wednesday morning, Celestine Bodji is standing in a line of around 200 people, all of them pulling shopping trolleys. Only two days have passed since the government lifted its strict lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. In the wealthier districts of the capital, those who did stay in the city have thus far been reluctant to venture out into the streets. But here in Clichy-sous-Bois, residents don’t have much of a choice. If they want to be able to eat, they have to leave home. The distribution of free food begins at 11 a.m. on the dot.
Bodji has lived in Clichy-sous-Bois together with her husband and her four children, aged six, 10, 13 and 18, since 2005. That was the year when angry rioters took to the streets and set cars on fire – first here, and then in the other banlieues around Paris before spreading to the rest of the country. The violent protests focused minds in the government and the rundown housing projects were renovated. But unemployment and a lousy healthcare infrastructure have persisted.
Originally from Cote d’Ivoire, Bodji spent the last eight weeks living with her family in a 65-square-meter (700-square-foot) apartment. Relative to others, the family didn’t suffer too badly. Her husband was able to continue working as a security guard, even during the lockdown, and she’s planning to start working again as a cleaner. But since everything has become more expensive, she says, the money they make will no longer be enough to make ends meet. Which is why she is now making her second trip to the food bank. “Go ahead and write that I carry great anger in my heart,” says the 45-year-old.
A plastic bag is handed to her with the words “Supermarché Istanbul” on it. The bag is filled with flour, sugar, coffee, noodles and milk. Today, there is also a man here smiling broadly as he hands those waiting in line out one-liter bottles of bath gel made with sustainable lavender oils. Bodji is a bit confused: Very few residents in Clichy-sous-Bois actually have a bathtub in their apartment.
Coronavirus — a perfect chance to be humiliated.
As the virus was spreading rapidly around the world a couple of months ago and it became clear that neither a vaccine nor a reliable treatment existed, a comforting axiom made the rounds in prosperous countries in the North. “We’re all in this together,” said Donald Trump. “We’re all in this together,” said Boris Johnson. Stars formed a virtual choir and fervently sang “Imagine No Possessions.” And Madonna soaked in a bathtub full of rose petals and whispered of the coronavirus: “It doesn’t care about how rich you are, how famous you are … it’s the great equalizer, and what’s terrible about it is what’s great about it.”
Too Good to Be True
Unfortunately, this conception of the virus as a great equalizer was too good to be true. A good five months after SARS-CoV-2 first appeared and some two months after large parts of the world shut down daily life, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposite is the case. Now that the lockdown is being gradually lifted in many countries, it is becoming apparent that, for now, at least, the overwhelming majority of the elite has survived this phase relatively unscathed. Millions sat out the lockdown enjoying their full salaries and broadband internet access, and many have found a taste for it.
Brokers in the London area are reporting that demand for estates in the countryside has recently increased significantly. Why bother commuting to the office, when you can conduct your business via Zoom?
For a much larger number of people, though, this crisis is far from over. They are the workers who kept the shops running during the lockdown, the bus drivers, the nurses and supermarket cashiers who people clapped for, heroes who were “too little to fail.” But will they stay that way once the dust settles and governments begin trying to recuperate the billions and billions they have spent on aid measures?
And then there are those who have been laid off – the waiters, the cooks, the flight and train attendants, the small shop owners and their employees, who are still receiving money from the government – though many of them know that they will not be needed in the long term. If nothing is done, they will soon join the millions and millions of unemployed.
And again, that is the situation only in the prosperous North.
If COVID-19 Doesn’t Kill Them, Hunger Might
If you look at the impoverished South, where paid government work furlough programs, minimum wages and functioning social and healthcare systems are often unheard of, it becomes even more apparent the different effects the virus is having. Even in the countries of Africa and Latin America, where in many cases the peak of the pandemic hasn’t been reached yet and lockdowns may continue for months to come, the elite has easily come to terms with it. But for hundreds of millions of day laborers, staying at home means they have nothing to eat in the evening. If COVID-19 doesn’t kill them, hunger might.
It does nothing to ask the 2 billion people around the world who are forced to live on less than $3.20 a day to wash their hands regularly. Especially if the next well is located miles away.
None of this is new. The grotesquely unequal living conditions were no secret even before the coronavirus stuck. What’s new is how glaringly this crisis – and the unique experiment of forcing millions into lockdown – has highlighted these circumstances. And the breathtaking pace at which the situation has deteriorated.
Much has been said recently about the two most decisive risk factors when it comes to the lethality of the virus: old age and underlying health conditions. But there is also a third factor, and it is growing more apparent by the week: In countless societies, a third risky underlying condition is social inequality.
Inequality Translates to High Infection Rates
In almost every region of the world thus far, the highest numbers of COVID-19 fatalities have occurred in countries where the gap between the rich and poor is the widest. Brazil, the most unequal country in Latin America, has by far the most infected. The same applies to South Africa and the United States. There and elsewhere, the link between inequality and high infection rates can be shown right down to the regional and sometimes even local level.
In Asia, too, income and wealth disparity has grown dramatically in recent decades, especially in China. In Western Europe, the countries where wealth is distributed most unequally are United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. Merely a coincidence?
Social distancing is difficult when you live with a family of eight in an overcrowded tower block, a favela or a slum. How do you feed your children when the schools and street markets are closed, but supermarkets are too expensive? How do you make ends meet when your wages come from casual work of the kind that suddenly no longer exists?
In a recent report, the World Bank stated that it expects an additional 40 million to 60 million people to be pushed into extreme poverty this year as a result of worsening inequality, with extreme poverty defined as having to live on less than $1.90 a day. The International Monetary Fund likewise recently warned that the gap between the rich and poor around the world has already grown as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
It is a development that is potentially explosive for society. The governments of the North will be particularly challenged if they want to prevent an outbreak of anger and a potential wave of migration on an unprecedented scale.
It should be clear to all those that have fared relatively well in the crisis: There is also no vaccine for social unrest, not even for the richest.
The Sunset over NYC
At the very top, above the fifth floor, they have planted a white greenhouse. Its curved gable towers over the brown roofscape of Carnegie Hill. The terrace offers an exclusive view of Central Park and it’s a wonderful place to watch the sunset over New York City.
But the owner, an investment banker, is enjoying the sunset elsewhere, having fled to his country home in the Hamptons together with his family and their nanny. Just to be on the safe side.
“Everyone in this neighborhood is a millionaire,” says real estate agent Sebastian Steinau, as he gives a tour of the mansion. The Rockefellers and Astors resided in estates around the corner. Manhattan’s Upper East Side feels far away from the heavily infected New York boroughs, where the coronavirus has killed more than 16,000 people. Viewed from Carnegie Hill, the fact that up to 200 people were infected each day in some Bronx high-rises and that mass graves had to be dug on Hart Island to hastily bury New York’s COVID-19 dead feels like a scene straight out of a Roland Emmerich disaster film: Creepy and hard to fathom.
Mansions like these are in great demand at the moment. “The trend is toward townhouses,” says Steinau. Owners of luxury penthouses in Midtown are looking at their properties from an entirely different perspective today. “Who knows who used the elevator last?”
That’s not a question you have to ask in this 600-square-meter (6,400-square-foot) mansion on 93rd Street. The investment banker paid $10 million for his refuge four years ago. Now, with coronavirus in full swing, the asking price has gone up to $20 million.
The double townhouse was built in 1893 and already survived one pandemic: the Spanish flu of 1918/1919, in which 30,000 New Yorkers died. It has seven bedrooms, six bathrooms, an elevator, a wine cellar, a pantry, a backyard and a terrace. If you have any health problems, you can contact the Concierge Medical Service, which will dispatch a private doctor. Luxury living for the pandemic era.
Steinau leads the way in his socks, showing off one luxurious room after the other. On the marble mantelpiece in the living room is one of Jeff Koons’ famous balloon dogs in metallic pink. The only member of the household still in the villa is the housekeeper, having been left behind to make sure everything remained ship-shape. Her living quarters are in the basement.
“A Point of No Return”
The neighborhoods where the rich live in New York have been emptier than usual in recent months. As many as 40 percent of residents have been sitting out the epidemic and waiting for it to pass in their second or third homes in the countryside. And they haven’t been met with open arms everywhere. In the Hamptons, locals have raged against the corona refugees, who swooped into town and bought up local groceries for their country homes by the pallet, possibly even spreading the virus as they did so. The New York Post described it as a “total class war.”
It’s one that is also raging in other places. And it illustrates yet again how the United States is a country with very limited possibilities for a lot of people. Today, 20 of the richest Americans own as much as the entire poorest half of the population. The Federal Reserve Bank recently stated that 40 percent of adults in the U.S. do not have enough money to afford an unexpected $400 bill.
And that was before the coronavirus struck.
Trump’s America may have reached “a point of no return,” says British public health researcher Richard Wilkinson, and “colossal political upheavals” could be the result. “It’s telling that one of the most visible reactions to the pandemic has been a massive increase in weapons sales.”
A decade ago, Wilkinson and his colleague Kate Pickett essentially predicted that a crisis like the coronavirus might hit grotesquely unequal countries like the U.S. with particular force. In their book “The Spirit Level,” the two social epidemiologists compared population data from dozens of countries since the mid-20th century.
They found that the more unequal the distribution of income and wealth, the greater the social and health problems in the countries in question. In bastions of inequality, they found that more people were mentally ill, addicted to drugs or suicidal than elsewhere. People in those countries also had lower life expectancy than those living in more egalitarian Scandinavia or Japan. And they didn’t grow to be as tall. They also found that people in those countries suffered much more frequently from obesity, heart disease and respiratory illness, risks that play a decisive role in the current pandemic.
“Unequal societies are almost always unhealthy societies,” wrote Wilkinson and Pickett.
The coronavirus hit countries with weakened defenses. And within these countries, the spread of the virus has been far more prevalent among the poor. But that’s still no reason for the wealthy to breathe a sigh of relief, says Wilkinson, because the most interesting finding in his 2009 report was that the problems of unequal societies also affect their rich members, albeit to a lesser extent, partly because the status struggles take their toll across all strata.
In the case of the coronavirus crisis, the inequality between rich and poor has been particularly obvious. In a number of countries, it was apparently members of the elite who caught the virus while traveling, often to Europe, and then brought it back home with them. A post from one Indian doctor went viral on Twitter: “A plague brought by rich world travelers will now kill millions of poor.”
Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, reported its first two COVID-19 cases on March 19. One of the infected was the well-known musician “Roody Roodboy,” who had just returned from France. Roodboy, who has been receiving death threats ever since, went into quarantine – a measure that 99 percent of his fellow compatriots probably couldn’t afford.
“The Plague of the Snobs”
In Mexico, several wealthy people apparently brought the virus back with them from the ski resort of Vail, Colorado, including the head of the Mexican stock exchange and the chairman of the parent company of the tequila brand José Cuervo.
In Brazil, 63-year-old Cleonice Gonçalves is believed to have been the first victim of COVID-19. She worked as a maid in Rio’s upscale Leblon district. Her employer had returned from Italy with symptoms, but she apparently didn’t inform her domestic worker. Gonçalves died shortly before her employer received the positive results of her coronavirus test.
“La peste de los chetos,” the plague of the snobs, is what the pandemic is called in Argentina and Uruguay. Even before the crisis, dangerous social developments had taken hold in many parts of Latin America. Argentina is once again on the verge of bankruptcy, and Venezuela is on the path to becoming a failed state. In Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Colombia, young people took to the streets last year to protest against social inequality.
Today, they’re all in lockdown. And several governments on the continent are enforcing those lockdowns with brutal police violence – and anger is mounting. At some point, it could boil over.
It’s a situation that also applies to Africa, with the danger growing the longer public life remains at a standstill on the continent. There, too, many governments sealed off their borders early on and forced their people into a sort of house arrest under the threat of draconian punishment. In many places, those who violate the lockdown rules are hunted down, humiliated and beaten by police.
But for many Africans, the risk of becoming infected with a deadly disease has long been part of everyday life. They have learned to live with illnesses like malaria, AIDS and Ebola as best as they can. In South Africa, it is estimated that since the end of March, more than 10,000 people have died of tuberculosis, a disease that, unlike the coronavirus, can be treated with drugs that are readily available. Public life would never be severely limited due to tuberculosis, but the coronavirus led the government to impose one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. As of the end of May, only about 550 South Africans had died from COVID-19.
The Most Unequal Country on the Planet
In the place they call the “murder capital,” Thembalethu is sitting on a plastic chair in the driveway of a home owned by his aunt. He’s angrier than usual. It’s a flat, faded brick building with two corrugated iron shacks standing in the courtyard. The dead-end road is bathed in cold autumn light. “The lockdown,” he says, “has brought us great suffering.”
The 32-year-old earns his money with sporadic painting jobs, but it has never been sufficient to put enough food on the table for his wife and two children. At some point, he began augmenting his income by robbing people, later turning to burglaries. He’s not proud of it, but now that legal jobs have disappeared practically overnight, he’s happy to have his 9-millimeter pistol. “I need it to survive,” says Thembalethu.
Nyanga has narrow streets, one-story homes behind concrete walls. Even the colors seem gray here. It’s South Africa’s most brutal township. It’s the kind of place where cars drive a bit faster on certain roads because there could be a shooting at any time. So they say.
According to the World Bank, South Africa is home to the greatest inequality on the planet. The richest 10 percent own just under three-quarters of all assets in the country. Even 26 years after apartheid, the chasm between blacks and whites is gaping. And the pandemic has the potential to make that divide even more cavernous.
“Murder capital” Nyanga is only one of many townships that stretch across the plains outside Cape Town. You can see Table Mountain from here, located just 15 kilometers to the west. It’s where the homes of the wealthy are located, the homes that people from the townships clean. It’s where the bars and restaurants are located in which they work as wait staff, where they drive taxis or work in call centers. At least in normal times.
But nothing has been normal here since March 26, when the government imposed the strict curfew and lockdown. But even with the easing of restrictions again on June 1, many South Africans are still unable to return to their normal work and lives.
Clashes between angry township residents and the police began weeks ago. Stones flew, barricades were erected and the smoke of burning tires darkened the sky. The police fired rubber bullets into the crowd. The authorities have taken action against around 230,000 South Africans who have violated the lockdown rules.
“It Reminds Me of Apartheid”
“Food from the government is arriving. But the people who distribute it only give it to the people they know,” Thembalethu claims. He says the targets of his robberies have changed in recent weeks. He’s now going after butcher shops and small supermarkets. “We even raid kindergartens and steal their food.”
It’s a daily routine that has little in common with life in Cape Town’s affluent neighborhoods. Even there, people have been breaking lockdown rules — to illegally sell wine and lobster, for example.
Some friends have joined Thembalethu in his pilfering. “We all want to go into the city and rob the rich, but we’re not allowed in,” says one. “We’ll get fake permits,” says Thembalethu.
A woman crosses the street and walks up the driveway. Her name is Ayamangalisa Badli and she is the local community mediator, with people coming to her with their complaints. She leans against the concrete wall and crosses her arms. “Look at the city,” she says. “And look at the townships. They are two different worlds. The people can see that there’s one race that’s better off, and then there’s the rest. And the races are even more separated now. We used to be able to drive into town and move around freely.” But since the coronavirus struck, she says, the townships have been like prisons. “It reminds many of apartheid,” she says.
Pandemics have always disproportionately affected the poor and defenseless. It is believed that the Spanish Flu killed more than 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. In India, though, it affected just under 6 percent of the total population. In Europe, it was around 1 percent.
In France, researchers long puzzled over why there were so many deaths along the boulevards of the rich in Paris. But then they realized that it wasn’t the wealthy who were struck down by the virus, it was their maids and servants, who were living in cramped quarters.
“The virus might well have behaved ‘democratic,’” wrote French historian Patrick Zylberman, “but the society it attacked was hardly egalitarian.” A hundred years later, not much has changed. The coronavirus struck a world in which the relationship between the rich and the poor was already out of whack. In the time since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began their deregulation campaigns in the early 1980s, with many countries privatizing their institutions, crushing their trade unions and giving free rein to the financial markets, the gap between top and bottom has continued to widen. The financial crisis a decade ago did nothing to change it.
An Obscene Gap
Since then, according to calculations by Oxfam, the number of billionaires in the world has doubled, and their total assets continue to increase by $2.5 billion a day. By contrast, the assets of the poorest half of the world’s population shrank by 11 percent in 2018 alone.
Under those circumstances, the coronavirus has had an easy time spreading. It has been a long time since any single event has illuminated the obscene gap between the haves and the have-nots to the degree the coronavirus has. But will this realization lead to any reflection internationally? Will there be a trend toward following the advice of Pope Francis, who described inequality as “the root of all social evil”? Is it conceivable that the virus will become the great leveler of society in the aftermath?
In his book “The Great Leveler,” Austrian historian Walter Scheidel argues that whenever great inequalities have been eliminated in the history of humankind, it has always been triggered by one of four “violent shocks.” Scheidel calls them the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: industrial-scale wars, revolutions, state collapse and … pandemics.
Could then the coronavirus ultimately be a salutary shock? Not according to Scheidel. He wrote in 2018 that a new plague, cynical as it sounds, would have to kill hundreds of millions in order to create a worker shortage severe enough that the dispossessed could make significant demands. And even if that did happen, it is quite possible in the 21st century that the missing people would simply be replaced by machines.
It is thus unlikely that the coronavirus will lead to greater equality. Or, rather, it’s not a given. It will, as always, be in the hands of governments to decide how to respond to the unprecedented economic and social devastation wrought by the virus and the measures taken to defend against it.
One possibility is that, as happened after the financial crisis a decade ago, there will be a new period of austerity in the wake of the coronavirus, with deep cuts to what remains of the social safety nets in some countries. A more hopeful possibility is advocated by intellectuals like the French capitalism critic Thomas Piketty: a restoration of the welfare state in the industrialized countries and establishing one in poor countries, with a fair tax system, without loopholes for corporations and tax-shy billionaires.
Historically, major pandemics have always occurred in times of great social inequality. Leaders of countries should see it as their duty to prevent history repeating itself. They could take their cue from Dr. Rieux, the fictional doctor in Camus’ “The Plague.”
“It may seem a ridiculous idea,” Rieux says at one point in the novel, “but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”