Corona and Climate: COVID-19 Kills, but Inequality Does Too

Rebecca Lawrence and Alison Ziller compare the laissez faire COVID-19 management of the Swedish Government with Australia’s approach to explain why decades of systemic inequality will catch up with us regardless of how well we police this pandemic.

Image by Jon Flobrant, via Unsplash

Sweden is seen as an outlier when it comes to its COVID-19 response. It’s not shutting bars, restaurants, and work-places, nor placing any stringent communist-style restrictions on gatherings to 2 people (unlike Australia). Their relatively lax approach simply stipulates a maximum 50-person limit for any gatherings. How, then, does Sweden plan to manage COVID-19? One obvious way, and one that has already been reported here in Australia, is by relying on the “social obedience” of the Swedes. Swedes are used to respectfully following social norms and rules, and when Governments come with advice (in this case, about social distancing) they generally listen.

Having said that, Sweden has already experienced around 1500 COVID-19 related deaths, over 50 times more per capita than Australia. Clearly, if they are letting so many more die from COVID-19, the Swedes are calculating a different kind of cost-benefit analysis than we are, so they are betting on something more than just “social obedience”.

The cost-benefit analysis in Australia goes something like this: we need to save as many people from COVID-19 as possible, full stop. We are prepared to go to any lengths to do so. Many will become unemployed, and we will prop them up with a (small) increase in unemployment benefits. Politicians won’t openly admit this next bit of the equation, but here it is: those who are at the bottom of the social ladder will likely fall even lower, because we’re not prepared to fundamentally redistribute wealth in our society (marginal increases in welfare just don’t cut it, and prioritising “business, not government” as a way out of this economic crisis is highly likely to further exacerbate existing social inequalities).

“Politicians won’t openly admit [that] we’re not prepared to fundamentally redistribute wealth in our society, [so] while we choose to save some people who might have otherwise died from COVID-19, we will essentially kill others”.

What this means is that while we choose to save some people who might have otherwise died from COVID-19, we will essentially kill others, or at least considerably shorten their lives. This is because any increase in social inequalities will have adverse outcomes for peoples’ life expectancies, that is, public health. As epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown in their seminal book “The Spirit Level”, the greater the relative inequality in a society, the more likely we are to die younger. That is particularly so for the people at the bottom of the social ladder, but true even for those at the top. No-one benefits from increased social inequalities, but least of all those who are already poor. While we may be saving lives right now from COVID-19, the actual social and public health impacts of lock-downs will not be known for decades.

Some impacts will, of course, be more immediate: increases in domestic violence and increased alcohol consumption; social isolation and negative mental health impacts; all of which have received limited media attention in Australia. Some of these impacts have been half-heartedly acknowledged by the Australian Government, with band-aid funding to domestic violence organisations and limits on alcohol purchases, neither of which constitutes a serious or adequate response to the real social issues. What is noticeably entirely absent from the Australian Government’s current cost-benefit analysis is the long-term cost to human lives because of increased social inequalities.

Sweden, on the other hand, has a fundamentally different starting point. It benefits from far fewer social inequalities than Australia: the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is much less in Sweden than it is in Australia. Research shows countries like Sweden that are more equal benefit from higher levels of social trust, more trust in governments, and less fear in general. Australian society, conversely, has less trust in governments, less social trust and is more fearful.

Trust is an expression of mutuality, sometimes expressed as mutual reciprocity, which is at the heart of social wellbeing. It involves care for others and a sense of responsibility to the rest of society. Trust, mutual reciprocity and relative equality all reinforce the other. When you have a good level of trust and relative equality, as in Sweden, the country maintains its social infrastructure in every sense of that term. It maintains its social safety net, health services, access to support and learning, laws and governance in the interest of public health.

So, it’s not just that Swedes are used to listening to and following advice in the interests of the common good, it is also that Sweden has a social infrastructure in place on which a robust response to COVID-19 can rely. Australia, on the other hand, has eroded its social and health systems. It is now trying to rely on individual behaviour that is not backed up with either a well-resourced health and welfare service or a common understanding and agreement about the importance of mutual reciprocity in a crisis. Which country is more likely to take a measured and sustainable approach to the management of COVID-19?

There has been a lively debate in Sweden as to whether a full lock-down is socially sustainable. Senior civil servants, politicians and public commentators have referred to the risk of “social unrest” under a lock-down, as well as adverse mental health impacts, increased child poverty and domestic violence. Add to this the fact that the unemployed in Sweden receive much higher benefits than those in Australia, so those who are made redundant in Sweden due to a COVID-19 driven economic downturn, are less likely to fall into poverty. In short, Sweden has so far chosen a moderate approach to managing COVID-19; one that is much more likely to be socially sustainable in the long-run, and one that is much likely to do less damage to existing social inequalities. So, while more people per capita may die in Sweden due to COVID-19 than in Australia, we’ll end up proportionately losing many more lives to inequality than Sweden ever will to COVID-19.

This article is part of our Corona and Climate Series, an ongoing collection of opinion pieces from leading experts in the SEI community. In a time of intersecting planetary crises, this series analyses the parallels between ecological and epidemiological crisis, focussing on questions of resilience, adaptation and justice on local and global scales.

Alison Ziller is a lecturer on social impact assessment in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University. Alison is also a consultant social planner specialising in social impact assessment (SIA).

Rebecca Lawrence is a Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. Rebecca joins the institute in 2020 after her time at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University as Research Fellow. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making.