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Updated: Aug 3, 2020

A brief look at privilege, inequality & COVID-19

Kayla Brittan

Operations Manager

The Justice Desk

COVID-19 has opened Pandora’s box. The developed and developing worlds are floundering and no amount of the usual blaming, propaganda, stigma, prejudice, racism or wars can end the global crisis that is unfolding. The World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the United Nation’s Secretary-General has claimed that it is rivalling the tragedy caused by World War II. But who will suffer the most? As always, the poor, the marginalised and the underserved will be the ones who suffer the most during this pandemic and long after.

COVID-19 has posed a serious threat to our society because it has potential to spread rapidly and affect everyone. It knows no race, no creed, no age, and it does not discriminate. It can affect those who sit in their ivory towers and it can affect those who beg outside of their doors.

News outlets across the globe have claimed that the responses to and aftermath expected from the pandemic are unprecedented. However, the question that continues to play in my mind is, if this was a disease ‘that only affected the poor' would the world be mobilising shutdowns and risking an economic crisis? Given the way in which the world has allowed starvation and curable diseases to spread amongst the poor and underserved, I think not.

Human rights only appear to be important when it affects the privileged. This is because we, the privileged know what it is like to have access to our rights and freedoms, and so we notice when they are taken away.

In South Africa, calls for high levels of sanitation are met with the realisation that many live without access to running water. Demands for social distancing and staying indoors are met with the realisation that many live in overcrowded households, small make-shift shacks and are exposed to domestic abuse and high levels of gender-based violence. It has become clear that the close proximity of the houses, the busy communal spaces and the understaffed, overworked and overcrowded hospitals and clinics are not equipped to uphold basic Human Rights, let alone a global health crisis. The problematic spatial planning and prevailing levels of inequality are being brought to the surface more so than ever before.

In response to COVID-19, our South African President called for a nation-wide lockdown and many of us have chosen to agree to surrender some of our fundamental freedoms and rights, like movement. Yet, we complained when underserved communities in townships ‘refused’ to give up the same rights, forgetting that they have and continue to give up so many of their other fundamental human rights, daily. These include, but are not limited to, the right to shelter, running water, safe jobs, quality education and healthcare.

This became strikingly clear when I started to look around me. It was as simple as a comparison between myself and a colleague of mine. We are both women, we are in the same age bracket and work at the same office. However- and here is the crux of the matter- she is coloured and I am white. She lives in an underserved community and I live in the suburbs.

We are both currently in a lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and to 'flatten the curve'. After the first week of lockdown had passed, I realised that it was an adjustment for myself, but it was hell for my colleague. The way the virus infects us may be the same but the direct and indirect impact it has on all of us is incomparable.

I had just returned from a hassle-free, fully sanitized trip to my local shop. I bought what I needed and kept my distance from others. My only concern was bringing COVID-19 back to my home. But COVID-19 is not the only thing many are having to worry about.

My colleague sent this message and unintentionally highlighted the vast difference that exists in the way we are experiencing this pandemic.

“I just realised that my bread is finished. If I walk outside to buy more, what if they stop me or even attack me? But I'm building up the courage. Plan of action, wear Justice Desk merch and put on my badge… at least they will then know I am someone."

"At least they will then know I am someone." Meaning, if I appear important and valuable according to society’s current standards, respect and protection may follow.

Human Rights are the rights we have simply because we are human. No matter your age, race or creed you are entitled to these rights. They are universal, inherent and inalienable.

However, this is contradicted in the lived reality experienced by my colleague and many others. The unjust systems that make up our society continue to thrive on discrimination and favouring certain groups over others. COVID-19 puts us all at risk, we have been made well aware of this. But those with access to their basic Human Rights and freedoms have a better chance of survival, recovery and living through the aftermath of this pandemic. Hence, the invaluable nature of knowledge and access to human rights.

There have been concerns raised that if the virus spreads, we will not have enough equipment and decisions will have to be made, as to who to save. Let us resort to a thought-experiment. Who will you choose to save, a child or a middle-aged man? Many of us will say the child. Let me make a slight change. Who will you choose to save, a black child from a township or a middle-aged, wealthy white man? Or let us bring it back to our earlier example, who will you choose; a white woman from the suburbs or a coloured woman from an underserved community?

Our current society makes this choice regularly. As an individual, you may think that the choice is difficult- but as a collective society we make these choices easily. Whilst some may argue, deny, feel discomfort or guilt; it is evident in each example who our society values more. We make these choices when we simply accept and tolerate people living without access to water, housing, food and safety. We make these choices when we accept and allow the prevailing levels of inequality to flourish. We have accepted this… so what are we going to do about it?

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