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If History Is of Any Value: Revisiting March 2020, Part III

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Precisely at the time when the experts quoted in the two previous parts of this column were being surveyed, I was writing the column "Pivotal Moment? What History Tells Us about COVID-19's Future Impact."

MY TWO CENTS' WORTH

Like my colleagues in other disciplines, I ventured into some general prognostications, which I called "potential consequences." Based on a review of historical pandemics and related crises, I offered a pessimistic forecast: If history is of any value, I wrote, "social, political, and geopolitical tensions ... are likely to build up and perhaps explode, producing social restructuring, firing up domestic conflicts, eroding civil rights, and igniting wars."

I offered three general prognostications: (1) increased inequality around the world, (2) further worldwide erosion of democracy and rising authoritarianism, and (3) escalating tensions that may bring the United States closer to a civil war.

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY

"The economic disruptions of the present crisis are likely to expand income and wealth inequality and accelerate the squeezing of the middle class," I wrote in March 2020.

Both things have happened in the United States and many countries around the world, with particularly harsh and deadly consequences for the most vulnerable nations and the most susceptible inhabitants of those nations, the poor, women and ethnic minorities.

Already obscene levels of inequality were exacerbated by unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines and medical treatment. According to the Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, as of September 2021, while high-income countries had a vaccination rate of 60%, in low-income countries it was a dismal 3%. This week (28 months after the declaration of pandemic status) the rate for high income countries is 72%; 20% for poor countries. And let's not lose sight of the fact that poorer countries have received a larger share of less-effective Russian, Chinese and Cuban vaccines.

While worldwide death tallies reflect high COVID-19 mortality rates in high-income countries like the United States, Italy and France, a recent study published in BMJ Global Health examined a broader set of indicators, concluding that "The burden of COVID-19 is far higher in developing countries than in high-income countries, reflecting a combination of elevated transmission to middle-aged and older adults as well as limited access to adequate healthcare."

 

The economic symptoms of the pandemic-induced global recession have hurt some countries and some groups of people more than others. No matter how you slice it, income and wealth inequality have increased worldwide since 2019. This is true for the global population as a whole, among nations as well as within nations.

The pandemic has reversed a trend toward the reduction of worldwide poverty that since 2000 had elevated the median income in poor countries and reduced extreme poverty rates from around 25% of the population to 10%. Various international agencies estimate that the number of people pushed into extreme poverty since the start of the pandemic hovers around 160 million. The war in Ukraine with a concomitant rise in food and fuel prices will aggravate world hunger and expand the ranks of the poor in a magnitude of tens of millions.

Women, particularly in poor countries, have suffered disproportionate harm. In 2020 alone, 13 million women lost their jobs and lost $800 billion in income. Girls have also faced higher rates of disruption in their education, which spells a long-term setback in gender equality. Oxfam has also documented a higher negative economic impact on marginalized minorities in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The so-called global middle class has also shrunk. According to a July 2021 Pew Research Center report, 54 million members of the world's middle classes had slipped into poverty since the start of the pandemic. The middle-class squeeze has been particularly harsh in East and South Asia.

There is one minority that rather than suffer has experienced an unprecedented economic bonanza. You got it right: billionaires. "Billionaires," Oxfam's executive director, Gabriela Bucher, has recently stated, "have had a terrific pandemic." The assets of the 10 wealthiest men in the world, including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and six others whose fortunes emerged from the tech sector, more than doubled to $1.5 trillion from March 2020 to November 2021, a sharper rate of growth than in the previous 14 years combined.

In defense of his fortune, on the last Friday of October 2021 (before he committed to purchase Twitter and then walked out of the deal), Musk grandiosely tweeted, "My plan is to use the money to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness." No comment.

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Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History" and "Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba." Readers can reach him at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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