Medical workers in San Lazaro Hospital, where several people suspected of being infected with the novel coronavirus are in quarantine. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News
Culture Spotlight

How COVID-19 shows us inequality might kill us all one day

If the plight of normal Filipinos continues to be ignored, the virus will eventually knock on everybody’s doors.
Gian Lao | Mar 10 2020

The horror is something no one wants to imagine. The Diamond Princess—a luxury cruise ship held in quarantine in the port of Yokohama, Japan for two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak—carried more than 2,600 guests and more than 1,000 crew members. Every day, a few of them would test positive for the virus, and then a few more. Early on there were 10, and then there were 10 more, and then 41, until the number reached 696.

How does something like this happen? Primarily, it was inadequate infection control measures—including a lack of clear distinctions between safe zones and contaminated zones on the ship, slow testing, as well as the misuse and scarcity of protective equipment. But there were more understated threats—more everyday, more pedestrian, more easily ignored.

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While guests were advised to isolate themselves in their rooms, crewmembers stayed in close quarters with one another. They shared small cabins and bathrooms at the very bottom decks. They ate buffet-style. Some of them went down with fevers, but continued to work and share cabins with crewmates.

A worker in protective gear is seen on the cruise ship Diamond Princess seen at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan February 19, 2020. Photo by Kim Kyung-hoon, Reuters

What kind of work did they do? Well, only all the work that could start an epidemic. They prepared food. They collected dirty dishes. They disinfected handrails. They carried luggage of infected passengers who were sent to hospitals. They worked long shifts—up to 13 hours—and we know what that can do to one’s immune system. If the inadequacy of the infection control measures made rapid transmission likely, this degree of inequality all but guaranteed it.

According to the World Health Organization’s latest situation report, the Diamond Princess has the sixth highest number of confirmed cases, next only to South Korea, Italy, Iran, France, and Germany, and ahead of Spain and Japan. Among those infected, seven have died.

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If there is any luck to be found in this situation, it’s that COVID-19 isn’t the most lethal pandemic in terms of fatality rate. The last report I read had it at 3.5 percent, and given multiple cases of underreporting, it is hopefully much lower than that.

But I also hope the people that ought to hear this are reading: If this virus were deadlier than it is, the Philippines would be totally screwed for the same reason the Diamond Princess was screwed—inequality.

The more privileged among us, myself included, can take necessary steps to isolate themselves. They will stockpile alcohol, multivitamins, and Sunflower crackers. They will take cars if they have to leave the house. They can skip work if they run businesses or are formally employed, and watch Korean dramas on Netflix all day. They will be fine… for now. But if the plight of normal Filipinos continues to be ignored, the virus will eventually knock on everybody’s doors.

Peope in Metro Manila wear masks as a precaution against the 2019 corona virus. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

The Filipino working class need their day’s wages. They need to work. They are squished into trains, buses, and jeepneys. They don’t have easy access to masks for when they’re sick. And to compound the problem: Almost everything this society needs to function is performed by the Filipino working class. 

The working class are required to be mobile. They are garbage collectors, cooks, food servers, jeepney and bus drivers—all jobs that could facilitate the mass transmission of a disease like COVID-19. They are contractual workers, who have no paid sick leave, and are thus financially incentivized to force themselves to work even if they’re sick. Some of them work in the informal economy, and have fewer social safety nets, meaning they will avoid hospitals at all costs, and instead continue selling their wares in crowded markets, even while sick.

This is how late-stage capitalism might cause the next Bubonic Plague. 

We treat those at the bottom of the income pyramid the way the Diamond Princess treated its crewmembers—overworked, underpaid, exposed to all the dangers because they are made to choose “between their health and safety and their economic livelihood.” But they are the lifeblood of our communities—the plasma in the circulatory system of our cities. And the gross inequality we’ve brushed aside for years could eventually put us at risk of national sepsis.

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I hate people who warn of an impending apocalypse without offering realistic solutions, but this is one of those scenarios where almost everything needs fixing. It’s as if our labor problems, transport problems, income inequality problems, public health problems, and learned individualistic behavior have all conspired to well and truly bend us over. It’s bleak.

But the first step, at least, should be clear: We need to change our mindset. Society is better when all of us can take care of our families and ourselves. Apart from close person-to-person contact, respiratory droplets, and contaminated surfaces, the main channel through which Coronavirus spreads is us being jerks to each other.

This goes for those hoarding alcohol and canned goods: The only way for you to be healthy is if you allow those around you to be healthy as well.

Apart from close person-to-person contact, respiratory droplets, and contaminated surfaces, the main channel through which Coronavirus spreads is us being jerks to each other.

This goes for business owners and bosses: The only way to actually protect your businesses from the stigma of COVID-19 is to make sure your employees are incentivized to stay home when they’re sick—meaning most employees ought to have paid sick leave and an income level that allows them to save for a rainy day.

Commuters and PUV drivers wear face masks as they travel in Quezon City, amid three confirmed cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in the country. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

And this goes for all of us. No one knows what’s going to happen in the coming weeks and months, but one thing is for sure: The economy will go to the pits. Small businesses and the informal economy will suffer. If you have money to spare, patronize their goods and services. Big companies have enough savings, and normal Filipinos don’t.

There is a lot to fix—and it’s always so intimidating—but maybe we can begin by sustaining each other in the worst of times. This, I believe, is the only way forward.

All of it almost feels like a cosmic lesson on empathy and equality. The only way to ensure our survival is to ensure the survival of others. If you were really self-interested, you'd know that the best way to advance your self-interest is to be a little more selfless. And what an important test it is. Will the privileged among us be happy to isolate ourselves as the world burns, simply so we can be the last to suffer? Or will we actually take action, tackle structural injustices and—by transitivity—minimize the impact of this disease as a whole?

At this point, I think the only thing we can be sure of is this: We can’t just wash our hands anymore.