π Society
Why is social inequality increasing in the 21st Century?

Covid-19: how the crisis has worsened social inequalities

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On February 9th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Antonio de Lecea
Antonio de Lecea
Associate Professor of Global Trade Governance at Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals
Yann Coatanlem
Yann Coatanlem
CEO of DataCore Innovations LLC
Key takeaways
  • With the health crisis, existing inequalities (between men and women, black and white, rich and poor) have worsened.
  • The interdependencies between types of inequalities have also increased.
  • Lock downs have introduced or given prominence to new types of inequality, from the digital divide to the possibility of remote working.
  • Among school-age children and students, these overlapping and exacerbated inequalities can greatly impact people’s futures.

The Covid pan­dem­ic is a per­fect exam­ple of the boomerang effect caused by crises: if we do not come to the aid of a per­son in eco­nom­ic, social or psy­cho­log­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ty, we expose our­selves to widen­ing social fractures.

A worsening of existing inequalities

Inequal­i­ties have wors­ened and the inter­de­pen­den­cy1 between types of inequal­i­ties have increased. In the Unit­ed States, for exam­ple, African-Amer­i­cans – over­rep­re­sent­ed in the most dis­ad­van­taged cat­e­gories – suf­fered 23% of fatal Covid cas­es, despite mak­ing up only 13% of the population.

Gen­der par­i­ty on the decline. As a McK­in­sey study2 points out, women are par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to pres­sure from employ­ers, which is reflect­ed in a mul­ti­tude of signs, such as the encour­age­ment to always show a ‘green light’ on their com­put­ers. In some cas­es, Covid forced them to spend more than three extra hours a day on their chil­dren and house­hold chores: on aver­age this was one and a half times more com­mon than for men. Women of colour are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed: black moth­ers are twice as like­ly as white women to do all the house­work and childcare.

Inequal­i­ties have also come to light dur­ing the recov­ery peri­od. By Feb­ru­ary 2021, the employ­ment rate for the high­est paid employ­ees had risen above its Feb­ru­ary 2020 lev­el, while for the low­est paid it was 12% low­er. In some sec­tors, unem­ploy­ment is like­ly to be high for a long time, which could inten­si­fy the exist­ing inequal­i­ty of access to employ­ment between per­ma­nent con­tracts and civ­il ser­vants on the one hand, and all oth­er types of con­tracts on the oth­er. Hence the impor­tance of effec­tive social insur­ance, and in par­tic­u­lar the safe­ty net that a uni­ver­sal income would provide.

This is all the more impor­tant because his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­as­ters, what­ev­er their nature, hit the poor­est the hard­est – those who have no plan B. Child­care is anoth­er area of inequal­i­ty: while it is not nec­es­sary while par­ents work from home, it can cause insur­mount­able dilem­mas for low-income work­ers already over­ex­posed to the virus in the work­place. Trag­i­cal­ly, the inabil­i­ty of a sin­gle moth­er to pro­vide child­care can lead to the loss of her job and a down­ward spiral.

Has pover­ty increased? An offi­cial French report shows that 12% of the peo­ple who vis­it­ed food banks between Sep­tem­ber and Novem­ber 2020 were new pro­files. The main rea­sons for using food banks are job loss, ill­ness, and sep­a­ra­tion, all of which have been affect­ed by the pandemic.

New inequalities

But lock­down has also intro­duced new types of inequal­i­ties, which may over­lap with and exac­er­bate exist­ing inequal­i­ties. First­ly, is the dif­fer­ence in health secu­ri­ty between those who are able to remote work and those whose com­pul­so­ry pres­ence in the work­place leaves them more exposed to the virus. Accord­ing to INSEE, at the end of March 2020, one third of employ­ees in France were work­ing at their work­place, one third were remote work­ing and one third were furloughed.

As core work­ers are often low-paid employ­ees, this is a dou­ble wham­my – for exam­ple, the Eng­lish core work­er earns 8% less than the aver­age wage in the UK as a whole. Neigh­bour­hoods where these work­ers live expe­ri­enced high­er mor­tal­i­ty rates from Covid than the rest of the pop­u­la­tion. In Toron­to it was twice as high as in more priv­i­leged neigh­bour­hoods. And cer­tain socio-pro­fes­sion­al cat­e­gories were par­tic­u­lar­ly dec­i­mat­ed: bak­ers in Cal­i­for­nia saw their mor­tal­i­ty soar by more than 50% by the end of 2020.

Anoth­er inequal­i­ty is the weak enforce­ment of con­fine­ment rules in cer­tain areas, which are already exposed to a lack of gov­ern­men­tal pow­ers and often eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged. Liv­ing in cramped flats that are unsuit­able for tele­work­ing or exer­cise tests the lim­its of many families.

Dur­ing the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, lack of inter­net access can cre­ate bar­ri­ers that are dif­fi­cult to over­come for many house­holds. In the US, an esti­mat­ed one-third of the pop­u­la­tion has no access to the inter­net beyond mobile phone use, and an offi­cial report by the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Coun­ties found that 65% of US coun­ties do not offer broad­band and 50% do not even have the min­i­mum legal speed. There is also illit­er­a­cy, which affects one in six peo­ple in France, accord­ing to INSEE, with 38% of users lack­ing at least one basic dig­i­tal skill.

Fur­ther­more, this dig­i­tal inse­cu­ri­ty is strong­ly cor­re­lat­ed with most of the tra­di­tion­al inequal­i­ties. The UN has made dig­i­tal access a fun­da­men­tal right, but much remains to be done to ensure true dig­i­tal equal­i­ty. This includes increas­ing net­work cov­er­age, facil­i­tat­ing learn­ing and reg­u­lat­ing pricing.

Differences in destiny

For chil­dren and young peo­ple, these inequal­i­ties, which are com­pound­ed and exac­er­bat­ed, can have a struc­tur­ing effect in the long term. This is a major issue, which should not be underestimated.

With­out the Inter­net, it is almost impos­si­ble to con­tin­ue one’s edu­ca­tion, and even low-speed access makes it very dif­fi­cult to fol­low cours­es. On the oth­er hand, only fam­i­lies where the par­ents have a high lev­el of edu­ca­tion (often the most afflu­ent) can sup­port their chil­dren’s school­work. Con­fine­ment there­fore led to a high­er degree of social repro­duc­tion, with wor­ry­ing increase inn school dropouts.

How­ev­er, even the most high­ly edu­cat­ed stu­dents are still at risk. In France, a joint sur­vey by the Con­férence des grandes écoles, BCG and Ipsos cov­er­ing 138 “grandes écoles” and more than 2,000 stu­dents shows that almost two thirds of stu­dents are con­vinced that they have dropped out and think they will have to make do with a job that falls short of their expec­ta­tions. 71% have “the feel­ing of belong­ing to a gen­er­a­tion sac­ri­ficed in the name of health secu­ri­ty”. For 83% of them, the qual­i­ty of their train­ing has been affect­ed by the cri­sis. Hence, covid has had an impact even on the elite.


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