When news of the pandemic broke in March 2020, nobody could have predicted what came next. The snowball effect of uncertainty, mixed with an overburdened health system and economic fallout, sent shockwaves throughout society at every level, on a global scale.
But now that some of the dust has settled and the worst is behind us, it’s time to look at the most unignorable reality of these events: inequality is worse than ever, and it’s time to address the problem.
From healthcare to housing, economics to education, the unequal nature of our current system is reaching a point of instability and unsustainable strain. In this article, we’ll address the major areas of concern that highlight how people are being left behind and how the events surrounding COVID-19 shed light on these trends.
We’ll also bring some hope to the table, examining how public and private institutions are working to close gaps, boost access to essential services, and create a more equal, sustainable future for all.
If COVID is just a virus, how did it increase the divides in society by orders of magnitude over just two years? It didn’t happen overnight, and these gaps did not widen in equal measure.
However, we can put together the pieces with greater accuracy now that we have the data and 20-20 hindsight. Here’s how COVID led us to realize that inequality is the most pressing concern of our time and the dividing lines that matter most.
The first dimension of inequality is racial and gender lines. The novel coronavirus affected black, Hispanic, and native communities more than whites and Asians in the United States and on a global scale. This inequality goes for health outcomes as well as economics.
Possible causes include genetic or cultural differences, or the lingering effects of discrimination in some areas of the world, preventing certain populations from advancing economically or receiving proper health care.
Education and awareness are also relevant components in the race conversation. Some families may not get the correct information regarding COVID protections, best practices, and vaccine deployments. As a result, rates of illness and death were higher among blacks and Hispanics and lowered among whites and Asians.
Similar differences were revealed between genders, as women were under more pressure to drop out of the workforce amid the worst of the pandemic. Responsibilities of single motherhood and community roles kept women from moving forward on their desired career path and set back the clock on economic disparities between men and women.
Most prominent was the widened gap between the haves and the have-nots due to COVID-19 and government measures enforced worldwide.
Lower and working-class individuals got squeezed out of the workforce due to mandates which closed thousands of small businesses. Those already struggling to make ends meet were kept from working and left without much government support.
In the middle class, small business owners and landlords saw financial setbacks that limited mobility and forced them to liquidate assets in the short term to stay afloat. As the middle class was already shrinking before the pandemic, COVID only worsened the situation for many.
On the other end of the spectrum, the wealthiest, most privileged members of society were essentially immune to disruption. CEOs, celebrities, and politicians saw no issue with lockdowns — in the digital age, they can still bathe in the spotlight from their living rooms.
In fact, some of the world’s biggest companies saw record profits from online activity as their competition was forcibly shut down across brick-and-mortar storefronts.
While businesses are now returning and unemployment declines, these deep class divides are made more apparent to anyone who cares to notice.
Economists have drawn strong connections between COVID and inequality between nations, which has been decreasing steadily since 1993.
Gaps between nations were whittled away by 34% in under 25 years, but COVID was a major setback in these trends, offsetting progress by more than 10% in just two years.
Now, we see that rich western nations are again pulling away in wealth accumulation, even though most of this money is held by banks and private individuals. As usual, everyday citizens are left behind, even in the wealthiest countries on earth.
In poorer nations, the impacts of the pandemic have been devastating. Larger segments of populations slid into poverty, with food shortages and lack of medical support increasing death tolls.
It’s a grim reminder that any economic pain we feel here in the United States is always amplified when looking overseas at areas that have traditionally taken the brunt of the downturns.
We’ve seen how COVID caused inequality in categories from race and gender to class and nationality. But what is the actual nature of these gaps, and how have they shaped up over time?
Let’s explore the areas of inequality that can help us see the big picture and make the right assessments to improve the situation.
With economics in the spotlight from the beginning, it’s easy to forget that COVID is a health issue at the core. The virus proved less deadly than many experts thought, although many of these deaths were preventable with proper healthcare responses.
Underserved communities found it difficult to get the information to limit COVID contraction and spread and weren’t given the tools to combat the virus once it had taken effect.
Even as vaccines made their way to the public, underlying health conditions like obesity were never addressed honestly, and health outcomes continue to decline throughout the U.S.
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Mechanics, cashiers, retail associates, and other working-class folks found it difficult to budget their limited savings and quickly ran out, even with the occasional stimulus check.
As it turns out, not everyone can work remotely. This led to an even further split between classes and working lifestyles, which continues to show today.
With less cash to cover groceries and necessities, it wasn’t long before families started falling short on rent during the pandemic.
Some states did an excellent job of preventing evictions, but this only resulted in racked-up debt without fixing the core financial problems. Food insecurity became a reality for many Americans, compounded by supply chain issues and inflation.
As public schools and universities were forced to make a rapid shift to distanced learning, educational achievement gaps only widened.
Struggling families often lack the resources and capacity to ensure a safe and productive learning environment in the home, and many kids go without education for a year or more.
This had a knock-on effect regarding social mobility, as parents could not split their time effectively between child supervision and working hours. For many families, the COVID years were stagnant at best and regressive at worst.
With ongoing issues like generational wealth gaps still to be fixed, COVID may have put the brakes on these efforts in the short- and medium-term.
Not all outcomes of COVID were negative, especially as these issues are brought to light with more awareness and clarity. Here’s what we can do to address inequality moving forward and repair some of the damages endured.
There’s no sugar coating it: America has serious health problems, COVID or otherwise.
Sedentary lifestyles, poisonous food, and drug addiction are rampant, and it’s not okay. It’s time for public health initiatives to focus on getting Americans healthy from the ground up rather than applying quick fixes that never solve the issue's root.
The education issue won’t be solved with cash alone. We need new tactics to deliver education and training for the next generation of young people who face being pushed out of the workforce by automation or the next pandemic.
With a focus on skills, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy, hope is on the horizon. This is a central goal of ours at Steady, providing roadmaps for financial education and economic pursuits.
It’s easy to get frustrated about the harsh realities of inequality, especially as they were brought into focus by the pandemic.
But there are plenty of silver linings in these discoveries, and the next generation of Americans will be more resilient moving forward.
It starts with the individual and the family, helping people get on their feet and be prepared for anything that comes their way. With apps like Steady and our partners, we’re giving people the chance to empower themselves with work, guidance, planning, and so much more.