Reconfigurations of Governance Regimes
Reconfigurations in Space and Time
Reconfigurations of Politics: Voice, Rights and Expertise
Reconfigurations of Social Policies and Inequalities
Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 1 | June 2020
Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 1 | June 2020
Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic | Reconfigurations of Social Policies and Inequalities — Article 14

Unequal Impacts of Covid-19: Political and Social Consequences

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In the early twentieth century, epidemics were a driving force in motivating Brazilian elites to cooperate in the development of national sanitary and health policies. Today, in a political environment where issues of poverty and inequality have largely fallen off the agenda, the Covid-19 pandemic may once again offer an opportunity to foster greater investment in public services.

Whereas the Covid-19 virus is indifferent to nationality, class or race, it has had considerable impact on poverty and global inequality. There are major differences between countries in rates of testing and the number of intensive care units, ventilators or doctors per resident. While it is not possible to establish a clear correlation between national GDP and confinement policies – a prevention measure that has so far proved effective – richer countries have (on average) invested more in emergency policies that have secured complementary income and assistance for small businesses. This means that, in practice, residents of richer countries can stay at home, while in poor countries informal workers in particular have had to choose between income or confinement.


Within each country, the possibility of isolation as a strategy of protection also varies not only between formal and informal sector workers, but also between those who have desk jobs that can be done from home and those who have manual or low-skilled jobs. Varying population density rates likewise impact the conditions and chances of successful confinement, which proves much more arduous in poor, crowded urban centres than in suburbs with condominiums and more private space for leisure. Covid-19 has also exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, killing more African Americans in the United States, more immigrants in Europe and more Blacks and favela dwellers in Brazil.

This leaves little doubt that the virus is not only increasing global inequalities, but also giving literal meaning to Goran Therborn’s Killing Fields of Inequality. However, inequality analysts like Leslie McCall and Janet Gornick have also argued that the pandemic may be an opportunity to foster greater support for redistributive policies. As Thomas Piketty contended in a recent interview on his new book Capital and Ideology, the outcome of this pandemic ultimately hinges less on the pandemic itself than on how it will be interpreted.

The way elites interpret the current crisis is particularly important in shaping its outcomes, as they have the immediate power to set the political agenda and implement public policies. In his book In Care of the State, Abram De Swaan analyses the history of European welfare formation from the perspective of the elites. His goal is not to underplay the importance of mobilisation from below and key institutional players such as unions and labour parties, analysed among others by Esping-Andersen in The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, but to show how European elites came to participate in the creation of welfare states as a collective project.


Epidemics play an important role in De Swaan’s narrative due to their role in highlighting the interdependence between rich and poor. By analysing the events triggered by the cholera, leptospirosis and chickenpox epidemics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, De Swaan shows how epidemics have come to be seen as a threat to the health and wealth of the rich, even if they always affect and kill more poor people. The epidemics made the powerful realise that the only sustainable way to protect themselves from such diseases was to prevent the poor from becoming ill and spreading the disease. From a selfish perspective, the rich realised that protecting the poor was the best way to protect themselves From a selfish perspective, the rich realised that protecting the poor was the best way to protect themselves. Charity, the most popular option at the time for social action, however, was hampered by the dilemma of collective action: if some were willing to invest resources in assisting the poor, those who did not invest would also benefit. To avoid this impasse it was necessary to force the rich to collaborate and only the State was able to constrain free riders to contribute their share by levying taxes. Through the State’s action, everyone’s efficient health, sanitation and social security services would be financed collectively, maintaining a healthy and satisfied workforce and protecting the profits and peace of the inhabitants of more upscale neighbourhoods. In the long term, societies were built that were less unequal and safer for all.

Funeral of a victim of Covid-19 in the Cashew Cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 6 April 2020.

The Covid-19 crisis has made evident the deterioration of these European welfare systems, revealing the extent to which they were understaffed and under-resourced. This corrosion of the welfare system was due largely to the neoliberal choices of European elites, such as fiscal austerity policies imposed on the less powerful and poorer states. But countries that never truly developed a welfare system find themselves in an even more precarious situation. As the WHO declared Latin America the new epicentre of the epidemic in May 2020, it is worth taking a closer look at the situation of Brazil, a middle-income country, which at the time of writing is the second worst affected country worldwide.

In his book A Era do Saneamento, Gilberto Hochman analysed how, in a similar way to Europe in the early twentieth century, epidemics encouraged regional and national elites in Brazil to cooperate in the formulation of national sanitary and health policies. These policies, initially extremely authoritarian, served as the basis for the contemporary health rights of the Brazilian population. However, the project of universal health was never completed. Instead, coupled with the growing privatisation of public services, it has morphed into what Fernando Filgueira has termed a Latin American stratified universalism – institutionalising the precariousness of public services that, even if universal, did not substantially alter (and at times even buttressed) the patterns of Brazilian socioeconomic inequalities.


Today, Brazil has a regressive tax system in which the rich pay little compared to the poor. That little is still perceived as being too much, because the upper middle class pays excessively to procure access to private hospitals, private security and elite schools. Political disputes have become polarised in debates about the state’s efficiency, pitting developmentalists, or those who still believe that the state should be responsible for guaranteeing economic growth, against neoliberals, who claim a good state is a small state. These debates have lost sight of the state’s crucial role in protecting society – including the rich – from the growing risks of globalisation, climate change and, recently, pandemics.

Before the Covid-19 crisis, inequality had disappeared from the agenda of the Brazilian executive, dominated by Jair Bolsonaro’s paranoid fear of communism Before the Covid-19 crisis, inequality had disappeared from the agenda of the Brazilian executive, dominated by Jair Bolsonaro’s paranoid fear of communism. Images of people waiting in line on crowded sidewalks to gain access to state benefits have brought poverty and inequality back to the fore. By minimising the pandemic and the suffering it has brought, Bolsonaro was not able to generate a rally-round-the-flag effect and unite the country against a common enemy as other world leaders have been able to do. His erratic behaviour coupled with a deep economic recession will likely disrupt his aspirations to an abiding series of re-elections, as Daniela Campelo and Cesar Zucco argued in a recent piece.  This is evidenced by Bolsonaro’s declining popularity, especially among the lower middle class who helped elect him. Although he is still supported by one third of the Brazilian population – primarily those who back a military coup, advocate arming the population for the struggle against communism or endorse the values of the Christian family, including its anti-abortion and anti-gender rhetoric – the economic elite that supported his election is now divided between those who remain faithful to the neoliberal agenda of his Finance Minister, Paulo Guedes, and those who have stopped endorsing the government because they no longer believe in Bolsonaro’s vow of anti-corruption after the departure of former Justice Minister Sergio Moro.

By compromising the privileged access of the upper middle class to health, the pandemic has reminded Brazilian elites that, despite the socioeconomic segregation, all Brazilians live in the same country If Bolsonaro’s declining popularity might be good news for Brazilian democracy, it is unclear what it means for Brazilian inequality. By compromising the privileged access of the upper middle class to health, the pandemic has reminded Brazilian elites that, despite the socioeconomic segregation, all Brazilians live in the same country. Ironically, in the case of Covid-19, it was the rich who spread the disease to the poor, bringing it back from Europe and the United States. Investing in quality public services through more progressive taxes in order to alleviate the chronic understaffing and underfunding of the Unified Health System would be the safest way out of the current crisis. Paradoxically, it could also be the least costly, especially when the price to pay is life itself. The outcome depends to a considerable degree on whether elites see redistribution as a necessary condition for a good life.

By Graziella Moraes Silva, Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Sociology
Faculty Affiliate, Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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An earlier version of this piece was published in Portuguese by Nexojornal.com.

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