As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, it appears to be setting off a devastating feedback loop with another of the gravest forces of our time: economic inequality.
In societies where the virus hits, it is deepening the consequences of inequality, pushing many of the burdens onto the losers of today’s polarized economies and labor markets. Research suggests that those in lower economic strata are likelier to catch the disease.
They are also likelier to die from it. And, even for those who remain healthy, they are likelier to suffer loss of income or health care as a result of quarantines and other measures, potentially on a sweeping scale.
At the same time, inequality itself may be acting as a multiplier on the coronavirus’s spread and deadliness. Research on influenza has found that in an epidemic, poverty and inequality can exacerbate rates of transmission and mortality for everyone.
This mutually reinforcing cycle, experts warn, may be raising the toll of the virus as it is widens the socioeconomic divides that are thought to be major drivers of right-wing populism, racial animosity and deaths of despair — those resulting from alcoholism, suicide or drug overdoses.
“These things are so interconnected,” said Nicole A. Errett, a public health expert who co-directs a center on extreme event resilience at the University of Washington. “Pre-existing social vulnerabilities only get worse following a disaster, and this is such a perfect example of that.”