A Privileged Pandemic?

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Living in Southeast Asia

Being an international student living in Thailand, in 2020, I attended school for roughly half of the school year. Each morning, masked students walked into school, passing by the thermal cameras, automatic alcohol dispensers and electronic temperature checkers. The community was conscious of the spread and carried out the necessary actions to avoid it. But at what cost? Probably not a very high one. Individuals living in developed societies arguably have less to worry about, thus taking precautions for a pandemic becomes a relatively small task.

Many of us felt the boredom of quarantine, took up new hobbies and didn't have to worry about a family member in essential work or work that put them and ourselves at risk. However, in less developed countries, such as Bangladesh, garment workers protested during lockdowns in the interest of their basic income for food and shelter. So, who had real the privilege here?

Inequalities and Disparities

The discussion concerning pandemic privilege can be linked to a vast spread of categories. The most evident privilege, however, is likely that of socioeconomic status.

According to sociologists at contexts.org, at the beginning of the pandemic, the wealthy of Los Angeles saw higher infection rates. This was likely due to more frequent international travel and increased contact with individuals coming from varied locations. As time passed, the trend switched to higher infection rates being prevalent amongst those of lower incomes. A plethora of factors can be attributed to this change, but the main causes are likely better access to healthcare and more ease of social distancing for the wealthy. Higher and middle-income earners, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, were more likely to have access to COVID-19 testing facilities, thus enabling them to comply with protocol faster to curb the spread. Richer individuals are also more likely to have more spacious households and private transportation methods, again, permitting them to more easily reduce their contact with others through working from home and more comfortable quarantines. Nevertheless, anomalous behaviour can result from certain privilege. In some cases, those who feel less worried about the pandemic, with the reassurance that they can receive and afford instant healthcare, neglect the risk they may be posing to others and disregard mask-wearing and social distancing protocol.

On the other hand, social distancing may also be considered a privilege. Oftentimes, disadvantaged and poorer groups are less able or unable to stock up on groceries. This makes frequent trips to public areas more common, increasing the risk of contracting COVID-19. Additionally, on average, lower-income earners were more proportionally impacted by unemployment with the onslaught of the pandemic. This has left more people preoccupied with seeking employment than before, as they are eager to find income that can support their basic needs. There are also dangerous implications of working in unsafe environments, such as increased exposure to the virus from the workplace and the use of public transportation multiple times a week. The ability to work from home in lower-paying jobs is also restricted, thus leaving lower-income earners no choice but to put their families at risk in order to survive. Adding on to this is the fact that as a result of reduced access to healthcare, many individuals in poorer communities are likely to have underlying health conditions already.

Socially marginalised groups such as people of colour, ethnic minorities, and those in the LGBTQIA+ community are also likely to face a higher risk of contracting the virus. This disparity is emphasised as they additionally face the prospects of being denied work and shelter due to their race, gender, sexuality, nationality, or disability.

Essentially, whilst some posted on Instagram about making the most of their 'quarantined' life, others fled war-torn countries, wondering where their next meal would come from.

A Lose-Lose Situation

Social and economic inequalities are driving disparities in health. But, if the economically disadvantaged are more at risk, does this make them more concerned about the pandemic?

The answer is probably yes, but what undermines this, in a sense, is that individuals within these more disadvantaged groups within society are likely to have different priorities, such as paying for food, education and rent, that make catching the virus unavoidable in some cases. Just like going to work in a communal space puts them at risk, missing work to avoid this risk similarly compromises the cost of their own and their families survival.

Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines

UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Ms Mizutori, stated in mid-January that '95% of the vaccines that have been administered so far have been used in just ten countries...immunity is not just the privilege of the few but the right of all."

Global talk of plans for 'vaccine passports' and reduced restrictions that come with being vaccinated almost stratifies a whole new classification group within our society. Arguably, with successful rollouts occurring proportionally more in developed countries of the Western world such as the United States and the United Kingdom, a new inequality arises between those with and those without a vaccine. Are vaccines becoming a luxury when they should really be a necessity and a human right?

A World of Restriction?

Being fully vaccinated, you can more easily see friends and family, experience life without masks under certain circumstances, travel whilst avoiding or reducing quarantine costs; essentially, you regain a taste of normal, pre-COVID life.

With a rollout that targets both developed and less developed countries, this future could be shared amongst us all. Yet there remains the lingering, dystopian notion that due to factors such as economic disadvantage and inefficient policing, certain individuals may be 'left behind' from the future.

The Paradox of Privilege

Whilst lower-income earners and individuals in less developed areas are very likely to experience mental health struggles regarding the uncertainty of their wellbeing and health, the wealthy have had their fair share of battles during the pandemic too.  Undoubtedly, the wealthy possess robust resources to manage their wellbeing, yet global health care professionals have found that, in some cases, it actually puts them in a worse place mentally than they initially were. Why? The phenomenon is similar to survivors' guilt, in which those who survive events that had put several lives at risk feel deep remorse and regret that they were able to survive and others were not, even if it might not have been in their control. This is a type of post-traumatic stress experience that ranges from the first-hand experience and knowing the person who has passed away, to watching the news and knowing that millions are dying globally. Do wealthy individuals have the authority to feel this guilt, and who is truly allowed to feel the pain of the pandemic?

Finding The Balance

There are disadvantaged groups in our society who are somewhat obliged to put their loved ones as well as themselves at risk in order to survive, which has also sparked a sense of guilt amongst those who are arguably 'privileged' enough to protect themselves from the pandemic through social distancing and working from home. So, where is the balance?

It seems immoral to justify the feelings of one group over the other. Particularly whilst acknowledging that there exists a spectrum of perspectives. For example, individuals who are considered disadvantaged relative to those within their community and circumstance, and may be considered "well-off" to outsiders, and those who actually do not feel either the positive or negative extreme of the COVID-19's impacts, should not be condemned if they are to feel remorseful or if they struggle mentally at all. Pain is relative to one's own life experience and position within society, thus comparing one's perception of pain to a normative standard can lead to the minimisation and trivialisation of one's wellbeing; everyone's struggles are valid.

Realise Your Privilege

If you can read this article, it is likely that you have access to a device, and to the internet, which is a privilege in itself. I have the privilege to be seated in a safe, outdoor space writing this article in my free time. You may feel some degree of guilt knowing that there are people who do not have this, and that might make you feel negative. However, according to the Observer Research Foundation, guilt only reflects our innate tendency to empathise, hence it is an arguably positive experience if viewed correctly. Changing from feelings of guilt to gratitude is a crucial step to reverse the 'paradox of privilege'. With that, and efforts to reduce comparison of ourselves with extreme conditions, we will be able to recognise our privilege and use it efficiently to overcome the distress of the pandemic. We must check our privilege to navigate the best way forward.