‘Worst crisis’ is poverty, not Covid-19

Posted on April 19, 2020


The United Nations was wrong to label Covid-19 “the worst crisis since World War 2”. Certainly in terms of the threat to life, by far the worst crisis has been poverty in a world with sufficient food and other resources to provide adequately for all.

But what Covid-19 (for which there is currently no vaccine and no ready cure) has revealed clearly is that all human beings are equally at risk from the viruses and bacteria that share our planet. This latest Corona virus is also transmitted in the air we all breathe and can settle on surfaces touched by rich and poor alike.

However, those most vulnerable are people with weaker or compromised immune systems: the elderly, the already ill and those multitudes who, usually through no fault of their own, are malnourished and living in damp, crowded and squalid conditions in the shacklands of the world.

Here poverty is the host that facilitates the crippling, stunting and killing of men, women and children. These horrors have been with us for years, but often go unnoticed in the wealthier suburbs of our global city.

How many people realise that, according to the latest available figures, 1.5 million people die each year of tuberculosis (TB)? Or that, by December last year, at least 6,500 children in the DRC alone had died in the latest major outbreak of that most contagious of viruses, measles?

Yet a vaccine to protect against measles has been available since 1963 and drugs exist to both treat and cure TB. According to the World Health Organisation both these diseases could be eradicated. That they have not been is a shocking indictment of our global system.

The arrival of Covid-19 has made such facts increasingly clear and questions are now being asked about a system that that prioritises private wealth over public welfare. The reaction to this latest Corona virus has shown that health and welfare systems, even in wealthy countries such as the United States, are grossly inadequate. The rich are able to access — and pay for —excellent private care. The poor all too often die.

One response rapidly gaining traction among civic organisations is the demand that a post Covid-19 world should see the introduction of a universal income grant: sufficient income for every individual to at least survive above the basic level of poverty. Significantly, its introduction is also supported by a number of leading business figures.

The support of business seems to be triggered mainly by fear of the social unrest that may follow a post Covid-19 world of even greater unemployment, mass hunger and the anger that may ensue. As such, their motivation may be an attempt to buy off the masses who may want more radical change.

However, a universal income grant is essential, both on humanitarian grounds and as a possible first step towards a fairer future. But to achieve it, organisation is called for at community level to ensure that equality extends beyond uniting to face the threat of a new virus.

The deprivation and hunger wrought by the response to the viral threat, not to mention the brutal action by some thugs in uniform, has brought people together as perhaps never before. Such solidarity should not be allowed to ebb away or descend into anarchy.

Let communities form coalitions, perhaps taking control of schools, too often the target of vandals, as neighbourhood hubs that function day and night as centres for education, discussion and debate. Such organisation could start to hold our elected representatives truly accountable and build the fight for a fairer society.