In America and across the globe, COVID-19 is diminishing people’s prospects, exacerbating inequality and creating ever-more feudal societies as the pandemic ravages the health and the pocketbooks of the poor and the poorly educated.
Globally developing countries are suffering from what The Nation describes as “a gargantuan north-south vaccination gap” between developing countries where fewer than 10 percent of people have been vaccinated compared to around 70 percent in Western Europe, Israel, Canada and US. And within affluent countries, there’s nearly as wide a gap between well-off and well-educated populations, and rural and urban backwaters still suffering from “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
In the long history of pestilence and plague, French historian Fernand Braudel noted, there was always a “separate demography for the rich”. As today, the affluent tended to eat better and could often escape the worst exposure to pestilence by retreating to country estates, while the poor have been left to fend for themselves as “victims of the urban graveyard effect” that’s persisted since the fall of Rome.
Despite attempts in the media to deny or downplay the links between density and disease, COVID death and infection rates remain worse in dense urban counties where poorer residents often have to navigate insufficiently ventilated enclosed spaces that their more affluent and mobile counterparts have been mostly able to avoid.
Generally speaking, educated and affluent city and suburban dwellers recovered their incomes within the first year of the pandemic, even as millions of Americans have fallen into poverty or are on the verge of destitution, and the federal moratorium on evictions is about to expire. Overall, upper-income workers recovered completely while lower-wage workers suffered major income declines.
As of May, employment for those making $60,000 a year or more is up by 7.4 percent since the pandemic began, while employment for those making $27,000 a year of less has plunged by 21 percent, according to tracktherecovery.org. The drop in low-wage employment has been even steeper in affluent areas, like Manhattan, as the high-wage workers who had clustered there are now dispersed while working remotely and buying services in their new locales.
This trend could accelerate if new pandemics emerge in the near future, as many fear they will. But for now, at least for developed countries, vaccinations offer a way out. Since January, COVID-19 has dropped from the leading cause of death in America to the seventh leading cause. But even here, the widely varied inoculation rates suggest future social problems, particularly as COVID-19 is becoming “hyper-regionalized” in communities with both low vaccination and low immunity rates, according to former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.
These come primarily in two very different, but historically impoverished and poorly educated populations: rural America, where the national media has mocked the people getting sick as Trumpist rubes, and inner-city America.
High infection rates in Arkansas, Nevada and Missouri, to name some of the hardest-hit places, could make them “no go” zones for companies and tourists alike. Certainly, people fleeing a pandemic will avoid areas where cases are rising and people refuse to take the basic steps to protect themselves as well as others.
But most Americans live in and around cities, so what happens in them generally matters more. The widening urban social divides, particularly on race, are reflected in widely different results both in terms of health and inoculations. African Americans, who are now 13 percent less likely to be vaccinated than white Americans, are now twice as likely to die from COVID, and three times more likely to be hospitalized than the general population—despite efforts to make vaccinations more available through churches, barber shops, and other community institutions.
In Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest, the vaccination rate in poor, heavily minority south and east L.A. neighborhoods hovers around 50 percent, while it soars to 80 percent in wealthy areas like the Pacific Palisades. The lack of vaccinations has spurred the county to re-impose mask mandates. Well over 90 percent of Covid infections, hospitalizations and fatalities since the winter, the county reports, have been among the unvaccinated.
Much the same can be seen in New York City, which is far better off than last year, but now sees the infection rates getting worse in mostly minority east Brooklyn, the Bronx and, also, whiter and more pro-Trump Staten Island. In the largely impoverished and overwhelmingly minority Bronx, less than 50 percent of people have been fully vaccinated. The overall in Brooklyn is just over 50 percent, but it’s barely 40 percent in poorer and predominately Black areas like Ocean Hill-Brownsville and East New York. In whiter and more affluent parts of Manhattan, the vaccination rate is approaching 80 percent, or about twice what it is in parts of Harlem.
The same patterns exist in Chicago and other big cities and, unless these are addressed now, they threaten to widen the divisions within our society. Given the availability of free vaccines, there is simply no need at all for allowing the pandemic to exacerbate existing social divides. Yet many people are already avoiding going to work in environments that offer greater exposure, a trend that may continue for a while given what Stanford researcher Nicolas Bloom calls “residual fears” left over from the pandemic
Rather than a cause for virtue signaling or an excuse for class bias, the pandemic should generate a strong movement to improve conditions in both the countryside and inner cities. In the wake of the devastating “Spanish Flu,” cities took steps to improve sanitation and also to promote the movement of people from crowded core cities to less dense areas; in the New York area that meant a massive flight from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, and beyond. It also meant the construction of public hospitals and well ventilated new school buildings. Rural America’s health conditions began to improve in the next decade, as the original New Deal brought clean water, electricity, new roads and better medical services to isolated small towns.
Given the likelihood of future pandemics, even when this one finally ends, such action is necessary not only for health but for the future of our most distressed communities. America, to paraphrase Lincoln, cannot survive as two countries, one healthy and wealthy, the other stuck in the icy grip of poverty and pandemic diseases.