Single parents. Low-income workers. The homeless. People without savings. The most vulnerable will be most hit by the economic downfall caused by the pandemic, and most economies are ill-prepared to protect them.
When Ancient Greeks purged their city-states of plagues, it was the vulnerable who suffered most. There are important parallels with our modern situation.
Both the epidemic itself and the economic downturn that will undoubtedly follow will strike at the world’s most vulnerable people — the ones we often tend to overlook when we think of society. Will our practice be similar to that of ancient people or has our humanity developed since them?
You can’t socially distance and self-isolate in your home if you don’t have a home. In the UK, it’s estimated that 300,000 people are homeless, although the real figure might be even higher. In the US, there are around 553,000 homeless people on any given night. These are not encouraging figures, especially considering that they come from two of the world’s most developed economies.
Transmissible diseases pose extra risks for those sleeping in crowded shelters or outdoor encampments without hygiene facilities. There are few solutions for quarantining homeless people, and to make matters even worse, rough sleepers often rely on the kindness of people or help from humanitarian groups.
Single parents, parents in the medical system
Schools in most areas have been closed down, adding pressure on all parents. For single parents, many of whom are struggling financially and risk layoffs, the risk is particularly high.
According to a ParentsTogether survey of 1,500 families, two-thirds of families are struggling financially due to the coronavirus outbreak. Most have already lost income or will likely lose income soon. According to the same survey, 80% of families are worried they might not have money for housing and food within 3 months. Almost half (46%) fear they will run out of money within two weeks.
For single parents without a support group or a partner, this will be particularly challenging. Parents in poorer families are generally concerned, especially as their children receive free or reduced-priced school means. More than half of parents whose children are in this sort of programs are concerned that they might not be able to feed their children.
For parents in the medical system, especially those working in hospitals, there are likely dire times ahead, where even going home every day might become a luxury.
Parents of children with special needs
Providing care for children with special needs is an important challenge, and many people relied on schools or special facilities, which have now closed down.
In the United States, 18.5 percent of all children under the age of 18 (over 13.5 million children) had special health care needs as of 2005, leaving parents in a precarious situation, as economic pressure starts to mount.
Low-income workers, people living from paycheck to paycheck
Most Americans have no savings. Even among those who do, many don’t have enough to go through several months without any income. Fed data shows that 40% of U.S. households would “not be able to come up with $400 for an emergency expense”.
Different countries have different figures, but the US is a particularly concerning case, given the fact that there is relatively little in the way of social support. Without a massive federal support plan, for the upcoming months, many of these households will simply not afford housing and food.
Older people in rural areas
Older people are particularly vulnerable in the face of COVID-19, and it’s essential that they receive necessary protection. But in rural areas, where communities are often remote or inaccessible, where there isn’t a local hospital or even a local doctor, things are particularly difficult. To make matters even worse, 2019 was the worst year for US rural hospital closures in a decade.
In general, rural residents also tend to be older, have lower-incomes, and are less likely to be granted sick leave. This entire context can make rural residents more likely to forego testing and treatment.
The mentally ill
A number of pre-existing conditions can make people partially or fully incapable of functioning in society. At a time when things are confusing for everyone, the extra stress of the crisis, and the uncertainty about the overall situation, can be devastating for people suffering from existing mental illness. Even for mild cases, being essentially forced to stay inside for days or weeks on end can have negative consequences.
Lack of care, access, and stigma during this situation only work to further complicate the problem.
They’re usually the last people we think about, but inmates are particularly exposed to COVID-19. In overcrowded prisons where even basic hygiene is not always available, epidemics can be devastating.
Visits have already been canceled, and as we are already seeing, inmates are very worried and riots are becoming a more pressing concern. Although they are serving time, inmates also deserve protection in the face of this sweeping pandemic.
The bottom line
This is not an exhaustive list of the people who are most at risk.
The immunocompromised, people living in heavily polluted areas, those suffering from pre-existing health conditions, gig workers — all are at increased risk in this period, not just from the disease itself, but from the economic downfall as well.
As usual, the true cost of this crisis will be mostly borne by the poorest and the weakest. Many will see their jobs vanish, with no net whatsoever. This is why, in addition to a healthy suppression and mitigation plan, an economic intervention plan is also paramount here.
Governments will produce such plans, but will they pay attention to groups such as these, or will systematic inequality and hidden discrimination strike once again? It will be a test for our society to see how it happens.