• In Brazil, science scepticism and political dogma have contaminated the debate about COVID-19.
  • Poverty in Brazil has risen by 33% in the last four years.
  • Public health experts must champion the urgent need to tackle social inequality.

“It may seem like a ridiculous idea but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” – Dr Rieux in Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague.

The COVID-19 crisis is producing some positive examples of global cooperation, but it is also exposing many fault lines and revealing some alarming tendencies. Resentment has been expressed by some of the hardest-hit EU states over a perceived lack of solidarity from neighbouring countries. Certain US states are engaged in a bidding war against each other for personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical hardware that has raised prices.

Urgent national public health decisions in the US have become mired in political partisanship. In Brazil, science scepticism and political dogma have contaminated the national debate about COVID-19. All over the world, there are legitimate concerns that the ring-fencing of communities and the closure of borders for purposes of containment will also reinforce tribalism and xenophobia. There is unease that suspensions of civil liberties may embolden authoritarianism and there is reason to fear a global increase in inter-generational suspicion and division. Ageism is rampant.

For decades to come our collective actions and lack of action will be debated, but some lessons are already evident. The most compelling is that extreme inequality does not work for anybody in this COVID-19 era. Even the most privileged cannot build their walls high enough to isolate themselves from epidemics – whether those walls are within or between territories. Just as 19th Century public health specialists championed the urgent improvement of housing and sanitation, public health specialists of the 21st Century must champion the urgent need to tackle social inequality – for the same reasons of generalized public welfare. Furthermore, that effort must be global.

COVID-19 is now rapidly expanding into the developing world. China apart, with its particularities and vast financial reserves, Brazil is the first major emerging economy to find itself on the front-line. The context is different and challenging. Brazil has consistently ranked among the most unequal countries in the world since data became available in the 1980s. Yet, income inequality in Brazil increased in the last quarter of 2019 for the nineteenth consecutive quarter – representing the most sustained trend ever recorded in the country’s history.

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