The ‘great leveler’ revisited: Why the Corona pandemic might boost inequality in society

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How will Covid-19 affect inequality in countries worldwide? The current pandemic is sometimes marked as ‘great equalizer’, but scientists from Utrecht and Wageningen University show why the opposite might be true. A study by prof. Bas van Bavel and prof. Marten Scheffer shows that throughout history, most disasters and pandemics have boosted inequality instead of levelling it. Whether such disastrous events function as levellers or not, depends on the distribution of economic wealth and political leverage within a society at the moment of crisis. Their findings on the historical effects of crises on equality in societies are now published open access in Nature HSS Communications.

It is often thought that the main levellers of inequality in societies were natural disasters such as epidemics or earthquakes, and social turmoil such as wars and revolutions. The most salient example is the Black Death of 1347-1352, a large-scale pandemic that killed up to half of the Eurasian population. In several European societies, wealth disparities seem to have been reduced afterwards. The suggested logic behind that equitable effect is the decimation of people while capital remained intact, thereby shifting the economic balance in favour of labour. Crises as windows of opportunity In most cases throughout history, the opposite is true. Bas van Bavel: “In spite of the marked differences in character and direct impact of the shocks we studied, most historical disasters were followed by a widening of wealth gaps.” In their article, historian Bas van Bavel (Utrecht University) and ecologist Marten Scheffer (Wageningen University) critically review evidence of the effects of catastrophes such as the plague on inequality, from medieval times till the present. Van Bavel and Scheffer used empirical data to study the long term effects of shocks on inequality.

Their research shows a twofold effect. First, the wealth distribution and institutional outlay of these societies at the moment of the shock to a large extent shaped the impact. Subsequently, the distribution of political leverage in society came into play in determining the institutional responses. Van Bavel explains: “Upon a crisis, rules tend to be rewritten. Social groups and organizations with the greatest leverage can therefore use that window of opportunity to adapt institutional rules, thereby shaping long-term wealth distribution. As most societies were historically unequal, in most cases the result was a further widening of disparities.”

Power to the people: the importance of bottom-up organisations Over the centuries, exceptions have occurred in situations where the ordinary people had strong leverage in shaping the response to the crisis – through organizations such as guilds, fraternities, trade unions, cooperatives, and political movements. Scheffer: “Our results provide empirical support for the view that in nations where such leverage of ordinary people is weak, the responses to novel crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic may increase inequality instead of diminishing it. Furthermore, when explaining the effects of a disaster on equality, we need to distinguish between the immediate impact, the medium-term effects of the institutional measures taken in response to the disaster, and the indirect outcomes in the long run.”

What history suggests about the current pandemic Their insights also hold relevance when thinking about the effects of the COVID 19-crisis. Van Bavel: “The direct impact and long term effects are likely to enlarge material inequalities. The social and economic context at present is much more similar to that during the 2008 crisis than to the context during the twentieth-century disasters – when societies were more equitable both in wealth distribution and societal leverage than at present.”

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The article ‘Historical effects of shocks on inequality: the great leveler revisited’ is published open access and is now available online: http://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-021-00763-4.

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