[OPINION] Let’s not forget the poor during the coronavirus pandemic

Back in 1998, I helped conduct a study on "Elite Perceptions of Inequality and Poverty in the Philippines," which included in-depth interviews and semi-structured surveys with nearly 100 of the country’s rich and powerful. 

One thing that disturbed me was the inability of many Filipino elites to see that ending poverty and inequality was in everyone’s best interest. Inequality and poverty hurts the poor the most, but in the end, it affects us all — it stunts economic growth, gives rise to crime and violence, creates unsafe and unhealthy environments, leads to a collective sense of fear and hopelessness, to name a few.  

A simple example that seemed to escape a number of interviewees, was how poverty impacts the environment and affects us all, including those who think they are safely ensconced in their exclusive enclaves with spiky wrought iron gates. While poorer communities who are exposed to it are affected more, at the end of the day we breathe the same air, draw water from the same resource, and so on. 

I was reminded of this with the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Nothing has emphasized our connectedness – locally, nationally and globally – more than COVID-19, which continues to rage around the world. Nothing will also emphasize the link between poverty, income inequality, and health more than the spread of this incredibly infectious disease.  

COVID-19, which originated from China’s Wuhan province, has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). So far, it has traveled to 114 countries, killed more than 4,000 people, and sickened more than 120,000 others. Health experts suspect many more cases are going undetected or underreported for many reasons. Some people who have been infected don’t exhibit any symptoms of the disease and are unknowingly infecting others. Others who are sick continue to work because they can’t afford not to. There are not enough test kits to go around, especially in countries that can’t afford them or don’t have any pandemic preparedness plans in place, or have under-resourced and under-developed healthcare systems. 

Those of us with access to communication platforms have heard health experts discuss what we can do to reduce our risk of getting it. Around the world, the advice is universal: wash your hands often with soap and water for about 20 seconds; carry hand sanitizer when you’re outside. We are told to stay home if we are sick, and contact our doctor if our symptoms become worse. We are told to ensure we have a two-week supply of food, water, and medication in case we get quarantined. 

These are all useful advice, except they forget that we are not all equal. Not everyone has clean, running water and soap. Not everyone can call in sick – part-time workers and the precariously employed don’t get paid when they don’t show up; worse, it could cost them their jobs. Not everyone has access to free healthcare. Even countries with universal healthcare, like Canada, don’t extend this to temporary migrant workers. Not everyone can afford to stock up on food for self-isolation or quarantine; others don’t even have enough food for the day, or a home. 

In other words, coronavirus discussions and responses are forgetting its impact on the poor and the vulnerable, which will be to the detriment of us all. No community will be truly safe and protected from this virus (and other future outbreaks) unless everyone has the same access to healthcare and other basic needs. If the person behind the counter of your local supermarket is infected with the coronavirus, the likelihood of you and many others catching the disease is increased. (READ: Staying compassionate in the time of coronavirus)

On a global scale, experts warn that the virus is likely going undetected and unreported in poor and developing countries, which could quickly be overwhelmed by a local outbreak. This would not only severely affect the health of their populations, their economies could just as easily crumble from its effects. 

The realization that everyone should be protected is only dawning on governments now. Italy, the hardest hit country outside China, is planning some economic measures to alleviate the burden on many. These include providing relief funds for small and medium-sized businesses in affected areas, and possible suspension of utility bills. 

In the US, the Trump administration announced it has met with heads of insurance companies, who have promised to waive all co-pays for COVID-19 testing. But as the British Medical Journal has pointed out, this will only cover around 160 million who are insured. “They did not discuss providing care for the estimated 30 million people who lacked health insurance in the US, the 44 million who had inadequate insurance, or the 11 million undocumented immigrants,” it noted. 

In terms of assistance for developing countries, some international institutions and rich countries have pledged emergency grants and loans to help them deal with the pandemic; some NGOs have contributed funds to the WHO to help raise awareness on how to avoid coravirus and to train rapid response teams and medical personnel there. Much more will be needed. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has underscored that a global effort is needed for this virus that, as he said, “does not respect borders.”

When the dust settles – which one hopes will happen, and soon – citizens must hold their governments accountable for their response or lack of response to the outbreak, including protection for society’s most vulnerable. 

We cannot afford to be complacent – scientists and medical researchers have repeatedly warned that viral outbreaks will now be the new normal as the climate crisis progresses. – Rappler.com

Marites N. Sison is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @maritesnsison