“A concern with equity in crisis management would lessen suffering in many countries now, and offer new ideas to inspire us to build a less unequal world in the future”
As the world jointly fights global coronavirus pandemic, the history suggests possibility of gains from combined efforts under the pre-existing inequality.
In an article published in Financial Times, Nobel laureate and Harvard Professor Amartya Sen wrote: "A concern with equity in crisis management would lessen suffering in many countries now, and offer new ideas to inspire us to build a less unequal world in the future."
Citing the Second World War as an example, he said that the need to act together can certainly generate an appreciation of the constructive role of public action.
Britain arranged more equal food sharing, through rationing and social support, after facing a big reduction of total food availability during world war. A similar thing happened with better-shared medical attention. The results were astounding. During the war decade of the 1940s, life expectancy at birth in England and Wales went up by 6.5 years for men, compared with 1.2 years in the preceding decade, and for women it rose 7 years, far exceeding the 1.5 year gain of the decade before. The chronically undernourished were much better fed than ever before.
The positive lessons from pursuing equity and paying greater attention to the disadvantaged helped in the emergence of what came to be known as the welfare state.
"The lessons to emerge from a crisis surely depend on how it is dealt with, and what concerns come to the fore," Amartya Sen wrote.
Before coronavirus, the world has been dealing with many serious problems from inequalities to politics of the relation between rulers and governed, both between countries and within them.
In the article Mr Sen raised the question if it is possible to alleviate such pre-existing problems by shared experience of the pandemic.
Stating other side of the war years, he wrote: "In contrast with the better sharing of food and healthcare by the British public, the terrible 1943 Bengal famine occurred in British India, killing nearly 3m, which the Raj did little to prevent."
In the policies against the present pandemic, equity has not been a particularly noticeable priority.
In the US, African Americans are dying at an enormously higher rate from Covid-19 than white people. In Chicago, more than 70 per cent of pandemic deaths have been of African Americans who constitute only a third of the resident population.
In India, inequalities remain very large. Famines have not occurred since the establishment of democracy, yet open public discussion — which makes the predicament of the deprived heard, politically significant and protects the endangered — faces increasing governmental restriction, including reduction of media freedom through direct and indirect means.
"Marked by the contrast between reasonable medical facilities for the affluent, and not even decent primary healthcare for most of the poor, and weighed down by the brutal asymmetries of modernised caste inequalities, India could have benefited greatly from equitable pandemic management. Yet there is little evidence of egalitarian concerns. Instead, the focus has been on drastic control and sudden lockdowns; with little attention paid to labourers who lose their jobs or the many migrant workers, the poorest of the poor, who are kept hundreds of miles from their homes."
"India, like many countries, needs something like an NHS. But no lesson in that direction will probably emerge from the pandemic response, given its huge inequities," he added.
However, internal disparities in suffering seem to have been no less in many other countries of the world.
The importance of social distancing to restrict the virus' spread is undisputable but it has to be combined with compensatory arrangements — for income, food, access and medical attention — for people devastated by the lockdown.