Inequality doesn't just make pandemics worse – it could cause them
April 2 , 2020

By Laura Spinney

Whether these measures are justified by the threat Covid-19 poses to human life is impossible to say, but those who imposed them knew there would be a high price to pay. Last year Mamelund sat on a committee that advised the World Health Organization on non-pharmaceutical interventions in case of a pandemic. The committee’s job was to assess the costs and benefits of measures for slowing disease spread – everything from hand-washing to border closure – based on the available evidence. They came up with a list of recommendations that excluded lockdown, even in the worst-case scenario. “We never suggested lockdown because we knew it would be so harmful socially and economically for all countries,” he says. “And I never thought the rest of the world would follow China’s lead.”

Norway has a small population – 5.4 million people – and a well-funded welfare state. There have been no protests there, so far, but the social impact of lockdown has been more visible elsewhere. In India there have been reports of deaths among unemployed migrant workers returning home in search of food; many countries, including the US, have seen workers taking industrial action, and anger has been expressed in rural communities over wealthy city-dwellers retreating to their second homes for the duration.

Governments should keep an eye on these developments, in weighing up when and how to lift the lockdown, because even if it’s difficult to argue today that the cure is worse than the disease, the cure might provoke an entirely different malaise – and history teaches us that no society is immune to that.

That’s the symptomatic treatment. In the long term, of course, they – and we – should address the dreadful inequality in our societies, which this pandemic is picking apart with a lethal scalpel.

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