It seems years ago, as cliché as it is to say, but the infamous incident of Gal Gadot and celebrity friends singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ at the beginning of COVID-19’s grip on Europe and America was amongst the first of many internet moments which marked 2020.
It seemed Gadot, as well-meaning as she and others may have been, achieved her goal of uniting us, albeit not as expected, with the internet mockery which arose afterward. However, what at the time was simply a chance for a divided society to unite in collective schadenfreude at such a miscalculated gesture from the wealthy has since become an unwatchable relic from a world in which few could imagine what state we would be in now.
Gadot was not the only celebrity whose tone-deaf response to a global catastrophe earned news coverage. From New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeting it to Madonna preaching it from a bathtub, the phrase ‘the great equalizer’ became something of a buzzword in the early days of the pandemic. ‘It doesn’t care about how rich you are’, Madonna claimed on video. While no doubt she means well, Madonna was wrong. COVID-19 does, as it always has, care how rich you are.
In the UK those in the wealthiest areas are 50% less likely to die of COVID-19 than those in the poorest areas. Sectors like manufacturing and social care, typically lower-paid areas of work, had amongst the highest rate of workers in the workplace and risk of exposure to COVID-19 by May 2020. Poverty is linked with poorer health and a great risk of conditions making one vulnerable: an increase of around £1,000 in an area’s average income is associated with an increase of 0.5 years of good health for men.
So yes, COVID-19 does care about how rich you are. The initial wave of the pandemic across Europe and America in early 2020 exposed the centuries-old understanding of the link between health and wealth, with the age-standardised mortality rate for COVID-19 in the most deprived areas of England between March and June being 139.6 per 100,000, as opposed to 63.4 per 100,000 for the least deprived areas.
But these first few months of the pandemic in which poverty did literally kill, the question of what comes next for communities already on their knees seemed conspicuously absent. A fall in cases in the UK and the return to partial normality meant the country was forced to face the consequences of months of economic shutdown.
The likes of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to continue free school meal vouchers through the summer holidays, in which individuals were forced to step in to ensure children would continue to be fed, as well as token, fruitless schemes such as ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ helped to cover initial cracks in the government’s post-lockdown inadequacy. A return to restrictions, however, soon laid bare the failure of the UK government to provide for those who had lost the most during the pandemic.
In the early hours of 16 October, the phrase ‘The North Is Not A Petri Dish’ was spray-painted on a wall in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. Appearing amidst the political crossfire between the central government in London and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham over the decision to impose additional restrictions upon Manchester, the cry of anger became emblematic of the next visible manifestation of the UK’s entrenched socioeconomic inequality.
Some of the poorest communities in northern England became, as Burnham put it, ‘canaries in the coal mine’ for the government’s incompetency in blanket lockdowns without the needed level of economic assistance. The communities which had suffered the most, both in terms of health and wealth, were seemingly punished with unequally applied restrictions which did not provide the assistance such places were arguably in the most need of.
In the US as well as the UK, the racial inequality in the impacts of COVID-19 became clearly felt, with those from ethnic minorities more likely to live in deprived communities and have a greater chance of becoming seriously ill from the virus, being all the more pertinent in light of the protests of the summer of 2020.
As COVID-19’s hold on the world approached the beginning of 2021, both the exposure and widening of deep-seated inequalities continue. Programmes such as the Job Retention Scheme are temporary fixes for problems which will stay with us for much longer, with a rise in unemployment of 104,000 between May and July 2020 likely being a worrying prelude to what will come when employers are forced to contend with a massive loss of earnings and the need for redundancies.
Even with mass vaccinations now becoming a reality, the potential for the unequal distribution of vaccine access around the world means that the solutions to the pandemic may end up contributing to the rampant injustices the virus has both exposed and helped create.
Whilst no doubt Cuomo, Madonna, Gadot and others have good intentions and the situation facing governments is certainly unprecedented, to take for granted the optimism of the early stages of the pandemic that this is ‘the great equalizer’ is not only ignorant, or even irresponsible, but dangerous.
Taking Gadot’s advice from March and simply imagining a world where the events of the last year have not happened is appealing, to say the least – but the problem is that they have happened. People have died. People have been made unemployed. People have lost faith in the institutions there to serve and protect us. Perhaps the worst part is the fact that this has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable amongst us.
To attempt to counter the impacts of the pandemic, and perhaps even build a better world, we must come to terms with these injustices exposed everywhere around us. COVID-19 may not be ‘the great equalizer’, but our actions can be.