Medicine / Special Report

Vol. 5, NO. 2 / May 2020

Inequality and Instability in the Time of COVID-19

Walter Scheidel

Letters to the Editors

In response to “Inequality and Instability in the Time of COVID-19

The current pandemic is likely to increase inequality in the short term. It has already exacerbated existing inequalities of opportunity and outcome.1 In terms of physical well-being, COVID-19 has opened up a gap between those able to work from home and those exposed to potentially infectious strangers. Disadvantaged minorities in the US are experiencing higher case fatality rates. With respect to income and financial security, the burden of lockdowns and distancing has been very unevenly distributed across different sectors of the economy. In April, average hourly private sector wages in the US rose almost 5 percent simply because so many lower-paid workers had just lost their jobs.2 Younger workers have been disproportionately hurt. And school closures and the shift to online instruction have separated students with access to broadband internet connections and dedicated computers from those without.

All of this has widened multiple fault lines within society: not only between the financially stable and those living in precarity, but also between white-collar and blue-collar workers, between different ethnic and racial groups, and between the generations. Given the severity of the economic downturn, these amplified inequalities are likely to persist.3 If investment portfolios recover while employment lags, these gaps could grow even further.

These developments stand in marked contrast to the equalizing consequences of some of the greatest epidemics of the past. The Black Death is the most famous case, a plague pandemic that struck Europe and the Middle East in the late Middle Ages. It killed so many people—perhaps as many as one in every three Europeans—that labor became scarce and surviving workers commanded higher wages and came to enjoy higher living standards. At the same time, propertied classes suffered as demand for the land they owned fell and operating costs rose. Similar leveling processes occurred in the great plague pandemic at the end of antiquity and in the massive outbreaks of smallpox and measles that the arrival of the Spanish conquerors inflicted upon the indigenous population of the Americas.4

Today, these dynamics no longer apply. Even in the worst-case scenario, mortality from COVID-19 will be dramatically lower than on those previous occasions. No labor shortages will ensue. Modern technology stands ready to curtail workers’ bargaining power. Even if mortality were much higher (as it might be in a future pandemic), automation and AI would help offset contractions of the human labor force. For these reasons alone, we ought to steer clear of facile analogies between past pandemics and the present crisis.5

This is not to say that history offers no lessons at all. In the longer term, COVID-19’s impact on inequality will be critically mediated by policymaking, just as it had been in the past. In the wake of the Black Death, political power relations determined both workers’ ability to bargain for better conditions and the elites’ ability to resist such demands. As a result, actual outcomes varied by country. The same logic applies to modern societies: in the end, policy choices will have a greater influence on the distribution of resources than the pandemic as such.6

The current crisis opens up political space for redistributive reform that ensures access to healthcare, cushions workers from underemployment and precarity, and may revive more progressive taxation to finance mushrooming deficits. One might conjecture that in the absence of effective relief measures, the economic fallout from the crisis might destabilize the social and political order. This in turn could prompt more radical and possibly violent challenges to plutocratic privilege.

But just how likely is it that the pandemic will bring about leveling by either peaceful or violent means? The risk of disorder merits attention because in the past, the most violent ruptures were often the ones that reduced inequality the most. Next to the worst plagues, these events included the collapse of states, which took down elites, the two world wars, and the great communist revolutions. Nothing even remotely comparable is on the horizon.7

Even though some commentators have already raised the specter of coming social unrest, the historical record speaks against such scenarios, at least as far as high-income countries are concerned.8 No society with an average real per capita GDP of more than a few thousand dollars has ever experienced societal breakdown or civil war.9 The Great Recession of 2008 did not trigger domestic conflict: anti-G20 summit protests and the Occupy movement in the US remained utterly inconsequential, and even Greece avoided major strife in the face of harsh austerity measures. In both Europe and the US, violent crime continued to decline.

Peaceful mobilization in support of progressive policies thus remains the only plausible option for alleviating inequalities in income and welfare.10 In the US, support has gone up for Medicare for All.11 There are renewed calls for wealth taxes, and universal basic income schemes now appear less fanciful.12 Globalization, which has long been a powerful driver of growing inequality, will also come under greater scrutiny.13

Even so, the neoliberal world order will not easily be refashioned. Since the 1980s, deregulation, tax reform, financialization, globalization, and automation have converged in creating solid and tightly interconnected underpinnings for rampant inequality in opportunity and outcome.14 The beneficiaries of these disparities are shielded by a variety of stabilizers. In addition to social safety nets and mass affluence, which have long helped curb popular discontent, quantitative easing has joined the plutocratic toolkit. First employed on a grand scale in 2008 to manage the financial crisis, it is now our best hope of staving off another Great Depression.15 Taken together, these stabilizers lower the risk of a descent into the economic decay and social misery that convulsed the 1930s. In so doing, they will prop up existing inequalities by alleviating pressure for radical policy measures and paving the way for a return to some version of business as usual. If it turns out to be possible to keep the economy afloat by creating new money, taxing the rich becomes a less pressing concern. If new protections for certain strategic sectors, especially those responsible for medical supplies, turn out to be sufficient to appease the electorate, we will continue to reap unevenly distributed gains from global economic integration. And before long, the daily grind of crisis management may well distract voters from grandiose gestures toward social justice and environmental sustainability.16

It is all too easy to be carried away by a sense of imminent transformation.17 While it is true that throughout history, crises have served as crucial catalysts for leveling, their actual impact depended on their overall intensity. The presence of powerful stabilizers should give us pause in embracing the Great Depression and the New Deal as suitable analogies, let alone the Second World War. The current emergency may have more in common with the Great Recession, when the same stabilizers were active on a smaller scale. At the time, the status quo was preserved and inequality remained high.18

To be sure, this time may be different. Given the enormous expansion of public spending and its central role in ensuring the survival of businesses, the state might end up establishing enough direct control over the private sector to change the balance between capital and labor. Yet bigger government does not by itself guarantee progressive change, just as democracy does not reliably promote economic equality.19 As so often, polarized two-party systems will find it particularly difficult to implement real change. And on top of everything else, contingent events, such as the recent centrist turn on the American and British Left, further narrow the scope of equalizing programs.

In the final analysis, much hinges on another great stabilizer, that of modern science. Right now, medical scientists are engaged in a strenuous effort to save lives. Yet the same effort also promises to preserve the existing social and economic order. The sooner effective treatments and vaccines are developed and made available, the sooner the world will emerge from its viral anxieties.

If central banks, laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies deliver, the prospect of significant leveling by political means will likely dim. But if the crisis proves unmanageable, the social costs of prolonged dislocation would overshadow any redistributive shifts. We might well find ourselves in a world where everyone is less well off than they used to be, just a little more evenly so.


  1. Max Fisher and Emma Bubola, “As Coronavirus Deepens Inequality, Inequality Widens Its Spread,” New York Times, March 15, 2020; Owen Jones, “Coronavirus Is Not Some Great Leveler: It Is Exacerbating Inequality Right Now,” Guardian, April 9, 2020. 
  2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Situation,” May 8, 2020. 
  3. Annie Lowrie, “Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance,” Atlantic, April 13, 2020; Isaac Chotiner, “The Interwoven Threads of Inequality and Health,” New Yorker, April 14, 2020; Robert Reich, “Covid-19 Pandemic Shines a Light on a New Kind of Class Divide and Its Inequalities,” Guardian, April 26, 2020. 
  4. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 289–342. 
  5. Such as Adam McBride, “The Black Death Led to the Demise of Feudalism: Could This Pandemic Have a Similar Effect?Salon, April 26, 2020; Mike O’Sullivan, “Will There Be a Renaissance after the Coronavirus Crisis?Forbes, May 3, 2020. 
  6. Walter Scheidel, “Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics,” New York Times, April 9, 2020. 
  7. Scheidel, The Great Leveler, 436–44. 
  8. Branko Milanovic, “The Real Danger Is Social Collapse,” Foreign Affairs, March 19, 2020; Andreas Kluth, “This Pandemic Will Lead to Social Revolutions,” Bloomberg Opinion, April 11, 2020. 
  9. Maddison Project Database 2018 (cgdppc in 2011 US$). 
  10. Editorial Board, “Virus Lays Bare the Frailties of the Social Contract,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020. See also Paul Hannon, “How the Coronavirus Might Reduce Income Inequality,” Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2020. 
  11. Yusra Murad, “As Coronavirus Surges, ‘Medicare for All’ Support Hits 9-Month High,” Morning Consult, April 1, 2020. 
  12. Camille Landais, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, “A Progressive European Wealth Tax to Fund the European COVID Response,” VoxEU, March 3, 2020; Chris Hughes, “Why Americans Need a Guaranteed Income,” New York Times, May 1, 2020. 
  13. Michael O’Sullivan, “An End to Globalization,” Inference, April 10, 2020. 
  14. Scheidel, The Great Leveler, 405–23. 
  15. Walter Scheidel, in “Does COVID-19 Mean Socialism or Social Collapse?Spectator USA, May 6, 2020, identifies four great stabilizers (mass affluence, social safety nets, quantitative easing, and contemporary science) that now check the four great levelers (state collapse, pandemics, total war, and communism). 
  16. For skepticism about the likelihood of progressive change, see, e.g., Shadi Hamid, “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” Atlantic, March 25, 2020; Peter Turchin, “Long-Term Consequences of Coronavirus,” Cliodynamica, April 20, 2020; Albena Azmanova, “Precarity, Not Inequality Is What Ails the 99%,” Financial Times, April 26, 2020; John Cassidy, “Will the Coronavirus Create a More Progressive Society or a More Dystopian One?New Yorker, May 1, 2020. 
  17. Examples include “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here Is How,” Politico, March 19, 2020 (34 contributors); Adam Tooze, “The Normal Economy Is Never Coming Back,” Foreign Policy, April 9, 2020. 
  18. Ben Steverman, “The Pandemic Will Reduce Inequality – Or Make It Worse,” Bloomberg Businessweek, April 29, 2020. 
  19. Adam Bonica et al., “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?Journal of Economic Perspectives 27, no. 3 (2013): 103–24, doi:10.1257/jep.27.3.103; Daron Acemoglu et al., “Democracy, Redistribution, and Inequality,” in Handbook of Income Distribution, vol. 2B, ed. Anthony Atkinson and Francois Bourguignon (Amsterdam: Elsevier & North-Holland, 2015), 1,883–966. 

Walter Scheidel is Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University.

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