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Inequality in a time of pandemic

  • 15 November 2021
The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has been like the aerosol used in those heist movies, where the cat burglar breaks into the museum and sprays the air to reveal the invisible lines of power that criss-cross the space between the door and cabinet where the treasure is kept.  

The pandemic has exposed all the lines of power and inequality in our society and has set off alarms everywhere. A recent OECD webinar gives us a good idea of the range of that inequality, and participants discussed gender and spatial inequalities — everything from the global south versus the global north, to those who can work from home versus those who can’t — to issues around mental health and access to services, housing, and matters to do with education, employment generally, and migrant labour issues. 

Covid’s exposure of these ley lines of inequality is, in other words, a global phenomenon. But I think it is has been particularly eye-opening for Australians, as we still flatter ourselves with the view that ours is a uniquely egalitarian society, one where the fair go, for the most part, still reigns.  

As federal Labor MP Ed Husic noted in his recent Jack Ferguson Memorial Lecture, Covid showed us unequivocally that this isn't true:  

At the start of the lockdown, some of the wealthiest suburbs in the city had vaccination rates three times higher than the west (and with a better ability to work from home). By the end of our lockdown, 60 percent of the deaths were experienced in the west and southwest of Sydney. Many of these deaths were preventable. 

Melbourne suffered similar problems, with insecure workers in poorer areas forced to pursue risky work outside the home, often to allow those in richer areas to work from home in relative safety, while some groups, particularly those in public housing, were subject to more extreme forms of policing. 

'The bonds of social coexistence are weakened as we allow those with means to opt out, to choose the nature and extent of their support for various policies, rather than just insist that they pay their tax like everyone else.'  

The Covid-19 pandemic, then, has provided a wake-up call about the nature of inequality in our society, and what has become apparent, I think, is that we need to give some thought to our underlying values. 

The point I want to make is that public policy and underlying values can’t be separated, and this has implications for how we approach inequality. Our values