In the World

COVID-19 casts a spotlight on global inequalities

While the global pandemic has had far-reaching effects on most people, the impact on marginalized communities in the U.S. and around the world has been disproportionate – and even more overwhelming, say FIU experts. 

“Inequality has been with us for centuries. While there has been considerable progress in certain areas, we still have a really long way to go to treat people equally,” said David J. Kramer, senior fellow in the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, who recently led a discussion on how the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of some groups who may be less able to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

“In the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, we see huge disparities between rich and poor, between and among different ethnic and religious groups, in gender, and on climate,’’ he added.

In the same vein, the pandemic has amplified systemic racism and gender inequality, among other power imbalances, experts say.

The intersection of the pandemic with the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have erupted around the world in response has further highlighted entrenched structural inequalities both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Part of what has happened historically – and that we continue to see the legacy of – is the disregard … and almost amusement with the spectacle of black death and suffering,” said Andrea Queeley, associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies and the African & African Diaspora Studies Program.

 “I think that we need to look at these kind of deeper reasons and patterns that contribute to racial inequalities that have to do with processes of dehumanization within the project of white supremacy.”

With heightened awareness of these issues in recent years, Queeley said she is cautiously optimistic about the future.

“I think that there are several factors that make this particular moment different,” said Queeley. “One is that we see things occur in cycles, but I think of a spiral, and I hope that the spiral is going upwards, meaning into greater light.”

Kevin Grove, associate professor of geography, noted that American society is based on the idea of whiteness and the privileges that accompany it.

“What defines the structural position of ‘whiteness’ is the expectation that you can and you will make a claim on the future, that you can, will and should act out the world according to your individual will and desire,” he said.

Additionally, sometimes images of black suffering and black death become a source of pleasure in and of themselves as part of the privilege of whiteness, Grove explained.

“People who are non-white, and especially people who are designated as black become instruments in the realization of white desire and pleasure.”

The protests against COVID-19 countermeasures show how the pandemic response implicitly challenged white privilege in a way that critically upset individuals whose sense of identity and self-worth is defined by their ability to claim the privileges of whiteness, Grove noted.

Other nations have managed to avoid situations such as these, chief among them New Zealand, Taiwan and Germany. In these countries, widespread uproar against preventative measures such as lockdowns was not as prevalent.

“I think [the lack of outcry against COVID-19 countermeasures] has a lot to do with much broader structures,” said Susanne Zwingel, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations. “In many of those countries, it’s not that you have one woman as a leader but you have a strong representation of not just white male parliamentarians so you have a large natural representation of diversity in political decision-making.”

Zwingel suggested that the larger representation of marginalized groups helps to articulate more needs that may be unaddressed in other governing structures.

A more diverse domestic governmental structure could help address often overlooked socioeconomic issues in the U.S., such as homelessness.

Matthew Marr, associate professor in the Department of Global & Sociocultural Studies, said that race plays a key role in those issues.

“[Homelessness in the U.S.] is a problem of racial inequality,” said Marr. “A lot of the time people understand homelessness through a lens of looking at the individuals and their problems or the individual deficits that folks have, but I think it should be understood as a deep structural problem rooted in wide inequality.”

“Even deeper than that — residential segregation, educational inequality, the failed ‘war on drugs’ — all of these things together generate a whole set of problems and homelessness is one that is really visible.”

Although there are a wide range of systemic issues in the United States, there is an elevated sense of hope that the increased awareness of these issues in recent years may transform into action and change. 

“I think that what is happening now globally in terms of the protests and outcry is a source of energy and a source of light … One of the questions [that we need to ask ourselves] is how do we sustain this? What does it look like?” said Queeley. “I think that there is something to be said to giving voice to people’s individual and community experiences.”

Spotlight on Global Inequalities was presented by the Ruth K. and Shepard Broad Distinguished Lecture Series. Watch the full discussion below.