With coronavirus cases reaching nearly 2.6 million, the pandemic is proving that anyone can be infected by the virus. As the pandemic rages on, we are told that the virus doesn’t discriminate. Whether you are rich or poor, all of us can be infected. But, this doesn’t erase the reality that the marginalized communities are the most vulnerable.
How the Pandemic Impacts the Poor
The pandemic has exposed existing inequalities in many countries. Those who can afford to live in safe places and don’t have to worry about how will they survive the next day. However, those with the lowest paying jobs and the fewest financial resources are the most susceptible to the adverse economic effects of the pandemic. This is because they don’t have enough resources to protect themselves when a crisis comes in.
Workers in the informal economy, for instance, may not have the luxury of staying at home without paid sick leave. People living in or near poverty often lack disposable cash and cannot easily stockpile food. These are also the same people who are more likely to get infected by the virus. At this point, our problem is not only the virus but also many existing inequalities which can limit the ability of vulnerable households to escape from – and stay out of – poverty.
Experts also reported that the marginalized communities will have a hard time coping with the impacts of the pandemic. This is because they would be suffering more due to poverty. A recent study by Oxfam revealed that the pandemic could push half a billion into poverty - 8% of the world’s population - unless urgent action is taken. The researchers studied the impact of containing the coronavirus on global monetary poverty based on the World Bank poverty lines of $1.90, $3.20 and $5.50 a day.
According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, there would be a 20% decrease in income which would result in an additional 548 million people earning less than the World Bank poverty threshold of $5.50 per day. The regions that would be heavily affected include North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East where up to 30 years of progress could be wiped out.
The findings revealed that East Asia and Pacific would have the highest number of people plunging into poverty (239.8 million), followed by South Asia (128.8 million), Latin America and Caribbean (54.3 million), Middle East and North Africa (44.9 million), Sub Saharan Africa (30.5 million), and Europe and Central Asia (30.5 million).
Why Do We Blame the Poor?
The poor will suffer the most severe impacts of the pandemic but they are also those who are blamed the most. Privileged people usually blame the poor for their plight, particularly immigrants whom they accuse of choosing to live in disease-inducing squalor. This isn’t a new thing, though. During the past pandemics or outbreaks, societies engaged in scapegoating of marginalized populations, especially when the virus or disease is linked racially distinct “foreign” peoples. For instance, many people tend to blame the Asian community for the rapid spread of COVID-19.
During the 19th century, societies from New York to London blamed Irish immigrants for the spread of cholera instead of curtailing commercial shipping, which ferried the disease across the globe. The immigrants irrationally scorned as carriers of the said disease and were secretly massacred and buried in a mass grave. In the early 1980s, Haitians were also beaten and harassed for being accused of spreading HIV. Thus, there’s a valid reason to fear that this pandemic could wreak similar havoc.
In 2018, a media site featured a commentator who claimed that Central American migrants would contaminate the country with smallpox and leprosy. This was a false claim given that smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. The marginalized even face violence because of this. During the Black Death, violence against Jewish communities was rampant. They were viewed as outsiders and were unfairly accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells.
Experts explained that this mindset is rooted in right-wing populist leaders’ beliefs. According to Time, an American weekly news magazine and news website, these leaders single out foreigners as vectors of crime, terror, and disease, as if they alone posed such threats. These beliefs ignord the fact that diseases or viruses are formed from the dynamic interplay between pathogen, immune system, and environment, and that they have nothing to do with where they were formed and the pace and scale of their dispersal.
Rana Hogarth, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who teaches the history of Western medicine and African American history, explained that blaming the marginalized communities have served the purpose of explaining disease in a way that conformed to a specific worldview. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, people tend to make sense of the pandemic in their ways, which is mostly triggered by so much anxiety.
“Targeting groups to blame is often also the result of underlying social or political tensions—and groups that are seen as economic threats, as not assimilating or conforming, often bear the brunt of this. Thus, how we frame diseases and understand epidemics as society becomes political—no matter how apolitical we think diseases are,” she said.
Even the LGBTQ+ community has been blamed for the crisis. This was after Ralph Drollinger blamed them for “God’s consequential wrath” and the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement, Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, explained that just like other people, the community is also affected by the virus. “Drollinger’s horrific assertions are ludicrous. Our government’s top leaders depend on him for moral advice and give him regular and direct access. His shameful views cannot be ignored,” he said.
“Our country is in crisis, and rather than placing the blame on marginalized communities that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, our leaders and their advisors must focus in, buckle up and flatten the curve,” David added.