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.” Because each low-income family forced to accept a higher risk of exposure can infect others, she added, the consequences of inequality, while most obviously felt by the poor, “put the broader society at risk.”
How Inequality Worsens the Coronavirus
Two major risk factors are thought to make the coronavirus deadlier for those who catch it: old age and pre-existing health conditions. But a body of research points to a third: low socioeconomic status. Even for those well above the poverty line, studies find that low income relative to the rest of society is associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
This has not always been the case. As inequality has risen, health disparities have widened. Preventive care and health education have steadily tilted toward the educated and the well-off. As a result, people at the lower ends of society are about 10 percent likelier to have a chronic health condition.
Such conditions can make the coronavirus up to 10 times as deadly, according to recent data from the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taken together, these two statistics suggest that Covid-19 can be about twice as deadly for those along their society’s lower rungs. At the same time, people with lower incomes tend to develop chronic health conditions between five and 15 years earlier in life, research finds.
Put another way: Health organizations have said that people over 70 are at drastically greater risk of dying from the coronavirus.