As far as health issues go, the novel coronavirus has caused unprecedented disruption and fear on social and financial levels, as well as infecting thousands (so far) with a damaging disease, COVID-19. But in terms of raw, epidemiological damage, the virus does have a place on a list amongst other significant harms.
After the series of epidemics of the past two decades, you might be surprised to hear that the SARS-related viruses are not the prime concern of many epidemiologists and health sociologists. In fact, socio-economic inequalities in health outcomes are the one item that has continued to vex the field for decades. How to measure them? How to explain them? And what do they mean?
Take France as an example, where there is good data available. The life expectancy for the richest 5 per cent of the French male population is 84 years. For the poorest 5 per cent, their life expectancy is 71 years. This means that of the approximately 315,000 Frenchmen who pass away every year, 15,750 do so before their time, arguably 13 years too soon.
And it’s not just the bottom 5 per cent. According to sociologist Julia Lynch, across the roughly 400 million people in Western Europe, white collar workers can expect to live five to seven years longer than manual labourers.
What is particularly worrying is that the forces driving health inequalities don’t suddenly stop when coronavirus arrives.
Coming back to our case study, the poorest 20 per cent of the French population are four times more likely to report being in poor or very poor health than the wealthiest 20 per cent. And we know that people suffering from the most common causes of chronic poor health–heart conditions, high blood pressure and diabetes–are disproportionately at risk if they contract the virus. This nasty disease will almost certainly cause greater harm (at a statistical level) to people who have less money.
It may be too late to prevent that happening, but it only highlights the disgusting nature of any calculus that would allow the disease to spread in order to support economic activity. Let us hope that policy is formulated foremost for the people, and not for investors.
Some food for thought in these testing times.