The Two-Tiered Pandemic

By Forrester Sorensen, Staff Writer

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had devastating worldwide impacts, affecting people from all walks of life and all corners of the world. However, it has not affected everyone in the same way, nor to the same magnitude. Even here in North America, the pandemic’s impacts on people have been far from uniform. Social and economic disparities have created a two-tier reality in which the pandemic experience of the upper class has been decidedly different than that of the lower class, with income, wealth, and health inequalities being exacerbated by the virus and our society’s response to it.

Unemployment and lost income were major themes of the first wave of the pandemic and it appears they disproportionately affected lower- and working-class people. According to a U.S. Federal Reserve survey, 39% of workers living in a household making less than $40k lost work compared to only 13% of those living in a household making over $100k. 

Throughout the pandemic and its various shutdowns, I observed that many white-collar workers were able to transition to working from home with limited complications and without missing a paycheque, whereas many service industry workers have had extremely inconsistent employment over the last two years. The findings from the Fed’s survey support these observations as it found that over 60% of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree were able to work from home in comparison to only about 20% of those with a high school education or less.

Furthermore, the Centre for Economic and Policy Research published a report on the demographics of frontline workers across several industries from 2014 to 2018. Their research determined that people of colour, women, recent immigrants, and those hailing from low-income families were all over-represented in frontline work. Thus, marginalised workers and workers with low incomes were more likely to be forced to work even during the most dangerous times during the pandemic, which not only increased their risks of getting sick, but also likely negatively affected their potential income as it precluded them from being able to claim pandemic-era benefits such as CERB.

If income is like a river, constantly flowing, then wealth is the ocean into which it flows. Thus, inequality in the distribution of household income directly translates into an unequal distribution of household wealth. This gap between the wealth possessed by the richest 1% and the poorest 50% of our society increased during the pandemic, partly because of the mass furloughs, and also partly because of the impressive performance of the stock market.

In the words of New York Times reporter Robert Gebeloff, “Although the distribution of income is unequal in the US, the ownership of financial assets and stocks in particular is even more so.”

In the United States, the top 1% of families hold approximately 51% of directly held stock. Due to this impressive rate of stock ownership and the record-setting growth of the stock market after the Spring 2020 crash, the top 1% of households saw their collective wealth share increase by 1.3 percentage points to 32.1% of the national total. This is how Jeff Bezos nearly doubled his net worth over the course of the pandemic and how fellow billionaire Elon Musk has grown his wealth by over $260 Billion in the last two years.

In addition to the economic disparities, the virus also exposed Canada’s social and health inequalities. The Government of Canada conducted a study on Covid-19 death rates during the first wave of the pandemic, from March 2020 to July/August 2020. The study found that there were “significant inequalities” in Covid-19 death rates in people 1) living in high-density housing, 2) living in low-income neighbourhoods, 3) living in neighbourhoods with a disproportionate number of people who identified as a visible minority, and 4) living in neighbourhoods with a disproportionate number of people who identified as recent immigrants or who spoke neither english nor french. 

The study also found that people living in these neighbourhoods reported less contact with physicians and higher rates of other health risk factors such as daily smoking or diabetes. The report concluded that people belonging to socially and economically disadvantaged groups were more likely to die from Covid-19.

Covid-19 did not create the inequalities present in society, but it did highlight and further solidify them. The financial hardship and increased health risks brought upon by the pandemic is another slap in the face for our country’s most disadvantaged and marginalised people. As Canada (hopefully) enters the recovery phase of the pandemic, governments, NGOs, and individuals need to make a concerted effort to address these inequities as they are becoming too glaring to ignore. We weathered this pandemic by caring for each other, and that sentiment needs to continue as we re-establish some sense of normalcy in our society.

Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash

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