COVID-19 has been haunting all countries for the last three months. There are many lessons we are learning from this pandemic, especially when it comes to how the outbreak disproportionately impacts lower- to middle-income individuals and working families, not only in lower- to middle-income countries but also in high-income countries.
Containment measures such as physical distancing, working from home and closing some public places are very strategic and proven to be effective; at the same time, some people do not enjoy the privileges of those policies.
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A working-from-home instruction was announced following a rise of confirmed cases in Indonesia. However, people who enjoy the luxury of working from home are those who have an office and they are mostly categorized as part of middle- to upper-class society. Workers who can’t work remotely are at high risk of getting the virus and all of them belong to lower- to middle-income families who are working in customer service or as cashiers, servers at restaurants, security guards, drivers, blue-collar workers and many more. It implies that economic inequality impacts the health outcomes of communities.
Furthermore, the homeless are a group that needs special attention during this state of emergency. Unlike many other people, they cannot partake in preventive measures, they cannot stay at home because they do not have a home and they cannot buy hand sanitizer or face masks because they already struggle enough in getting a proper meal. It means that a preventive measure to contain COVID-19 is less likely to become their priority.
Then, when universities or schools decided to move to online learning, economic inequality again became a barrier to achieving a proper learning experience. This is because lower- to middle-income students and families have to prepare a sufficient internet quota and stable connections, which, by nature, takes a significant amount of money, and even then not all of them have smartphones. Therefore, teachers and lecturers need to be very strategic in accommodating some students’ needs and situations.
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Self-distancing also means people need to have enough food stocks for a week, two weeks or a month. However, most working families rely on daily and weekly incomes, which makes it almost impossible to have enough food for those periods of time, or even to have spare money to buy vitamins that strengthen their immune system.
Fewer public activities also means less income for street vendors. With the city empty now, there are no earnings to bring home. Not all of them have savings for this situation; their money is just enough, or sometimes not enough, for rent and electricity and water bills. The government needs to be very sensitive in accommodating these people; a significant increase in cash transfers could be an alternative. More than that, many small businesses close during pandemics. Big corporations can easily survive and regain their profits after an outbreak, but small enterprises rely on weekly and monthly income to survive. Supporting this type of business in post-pandemic recovery needs to be considered.
The good news is, to cater to the needs of working families, which do not have private vehicles that allow them to commute to work or anywhere, the government started to screen people before entering public transportation and clean facilities up. The concern is, these procedures of cleaning and using disinfectants were not there before. It implies that working people have always been in danger of viruses. It does not mean that all people should have a private car or motorcycle. However, it suggests that the current practices should have been there even before the outbreak and hopefully will continue afterward even after the pandemic ends.
Lastly, the most important issue is the opportunity to get tested. It is very easy for rich people to schedule a COVID-19 test; the price is manageable for them. However, for most lower-income individuals, it is very pricy, and they can’t allocate their entire month or half-month salary to know their coronavirus disease status.
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Even for some lower-income families and people who are at high risk of getting the virus, the amount of money needed for the test is equal to rent and food expenses. If they have to choose between testing and having a house to live in and food to eat, they will go with the latter, even if they have symptoms.
The government now plans to conduct mass testing; however, prior to that, knowing one’s own health status amid this outbreak was a privilege of middle- to upper-class people who are able to take preventive measures to reduce their chances of contracting the virus.
Global Health Master of Public Health candidate at the University of Washington
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.