More Equal Societies are Better Placed to Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic


By Paul von Chamier, Research Officer, NYU CIC

“We are all in this together” was a popular phrase when the pandemic hit last year. Soon enough though, we learned that it was the poor and underprivileged who bore the brunt of the crisis. Now we have enough data to illustrate how inequality and exclusion are not only a result of the pandemic, but that they can also compound virus infection rates. As we look towards a future with more pandemic-like crises, it’s crucial to make investments in equality and inclusion now in order to strengthen societies’ shock resilience.

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In our newly published research, Inequality, Lockdown, and COVID-19: Unequal Societies Struggle to Contain the Virus, we explored how pre-existing inequities might have impacted countries’ ability to withstand the pandemic. To that end, we looked at 70 countries between March — December 2020, tracking linkages between changes in weekly infection rates and a number of country characteristics, such as government efficiency, urban population share, and share of the population over the age of 65 and the income gap (inequality measured by the Gini coefficient). We also took into account time-varying aspects such as lockdown stringency and the actual extent to which people moved around during the lockdown (measured using satellite–based tracking by Google Mobility Report).

We found a consistent pattern of countries with higher inequality rates experiencing higher COVID-19 infection rates. The recorded wedge in weekly infection rates in countries with higher Gini coefficient rates compounded like interest on debt every week. By the end of the first wave of virus (set in the study to late August 2020), just one additional Gini coefficient point correlated with a roughly 1/3 higher overall number of infections. In other words, the more equal countries enjoyed an “equality dividend” which effectively gave them better shock resilience during the crisis.

There are a number of ways in which inequality can impact a country’s performance in a pandemic-like crisis. For instance, inequality leads to lower levels of trust in public authorities, undermining compliance with health guidelines, and thereby leading to higher infection rates. Moreover, nations with high levels of income inequality are also more likely to have people who lack the financial resources to stay in quarantine and who live in crowded housing conditions — both of which are likely to result in faster spread of infections. Finally, systemic exclusion, resulting in poorer access to public services and information, can also undermine vulnerable communities’ ability to stymie infection rates. Access to digital resources and channels of information depends on income levels and will therefore result in different degrees of awareness of guidelines and vaccine eligibility.

In the short-term, these lessons from the pandemic in 2020 should inform the vaccine rollout strategy in 2021. The same underprivileged communities that have been hotspots for COVID-19 infections can become fertile ground for the virus to develop new strains before enough people are vaccinated. In fact, inequality in vaccine rollout, both within countries and between them, already displays a strong income-related pattern, which suggests that there is a risk of repeating the mistake of letting inequities undermine the pandemic response.

In the long-term, equality and inclusion, already core values of the UN Sustainable Development Goals agenda, should also be at the core of a broader strategy of building resilience against future shocks. This goes beyond the fragile state context, in which shock resilience is usually discussed, and applies to both developing and developed countries. The apparent diminishing effect of lockdown restrictions over time shows that compliance by force, while important during the initial response, has a shelf life. What yields more sustainable results is equality and inclusion, with their collateral benefits: higher social cohesiveness and trust. E.g. studies affirm that Italian regions with higher civic capital and social trust display greater and more enduring lockdown compliance levels early on, which is decisive in halting the virus’ spread. In this context, a policy commitment to socio-economic equality and inclusion should be perceived as part of a social contract, and as such, not only a smart way to build back better, but also a way to build shock resilience and make a true investment in national development.