In Pursuit of Vaccine Against Viral Inequalities? Notes on Pandemic, Panacea, Poisons, Placebo

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Visio Institut

We all stand equal in front of death, though we live in unequal ways, for our gifts and fates that Gods or odds reserve for us are profoundly different and unevenly distributed. We, the ruled ones, are allegedly equal before the law, while rulers one-sidedly legislate a fake uniformity. At the same time, statisticians sequestrate us in income/wealth quartiles, deciles, percentiles only to fuel lamentations for redistributive justice.

While getting bored in the suffocating safety of our lazaretto homes, a question hits us: is the new coronavirus a leveler, an equalizer? But more than that, is not the ever-haunting ghost of egalitarianism a more dangerous contagion?

This essay examines the routes by which the pandemic leads to even-more-uneven social access to money, jobs, education, healthcare or empathy. Adding an extra-layer of disdain, in times of a pandemic, towards market-freedom capitalism (de-homogenized from the state-infiltrated surrogate), for democratic social fairness reasons, invoking socio-macroorganisms’ infirmities in front of bio-microorganisms, is so deceptive.

First, it is simply faulty, since capital and labor are the two sides of the same coin: they face and fall together to natural hazards. Second, this optic gives the floor to fraudulent policymaking of control-and-command equality, powerless in front of both poverty and pandemics. Prior to a COVID-19 cure, humankind needs a thoughtful vaccine against even more sophisticated, and deeply sophistic, viruses of the mind.

Introduction

Reflecting and reporting on the impact of the new coronavirus on the ages-old obsessive (in)equality academia, media and others are swinging between claims that SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 (the pathogen / the disease) is either a blindfolded leveler or, on the contrary, a balance destroyer. Prior to any numbers or metrics, it is about rule-of-thumb hypothesizing.

Therefore, on the one hand, we might be facing a leveler (by virtue of the ultimate exposure to death or of the universal depression that accompanies it, which indiscriminately hurts people, irrespective of their locus in socio-economic classes or hemispheres); on the other hand, we might be witnessing some kind of a balance destroyer (by virtue of deepening the already suffocating burden of today’s polarized economies and, especially, labor markets’ usual losers).

Withal, such an opinionated pair of scales seems itself unbalanced.

Indeed, inequalitarian-ism weighs more in the ideological balance. In fact, inequality is viewed as a kind of cynical facilitator of the pandemic havoc—a corona-driven poverty trap is being equipped. The sentiment already seeded by the signalers of the contemporary intra- and international inequality vertigo is receiving extra fuel.

Markets are said to fail in minding and filling in the gaps (states too, yet somehow less so than markets), as these two evils feed on each other: pandemic hits unequally, while inequality goes pandemic. Such narratives are spread by settled scholarly journals and by breaking news reports (warning that Brazilian favelas look like incubators for the walking-dead while American billionaires raise their net worth).

The need for a healthy, soundly discriminative (not discriminatory) grasp of human inequality, of the natural versus artificial parts in this mixed (and messed-up) societal reality, is a legitimate concern in normal junctures and in “times of cholera” equally.

As a matter of fact, the already existing wealth and welfare gaps definitely become sensibly more acute, for the lockdown translates into even more uneven social access to money (i.e., in terms of blatant decreasing purchasing power, despite eventual price freezing), work (i.e., in terms of keeping the jobs slightly above or just below wage-productivity parity), education (i.e., in terms of keeping up with IT&C replacing traditional teaching/learning), health (i.e., in terms of shortage of or disease-risk within baffled public medical institutions) or empathy (i.e., with precisely the society’s underdogs—the minorities, the migrants, the meagre—facing extra-discriminative attitudes from fear of them being agents of contagion or merely the wrong persons at the wrong time).

It is hard to deny this (in)humane state of affairs. But as a matter of values, bleak anti-inequalitarianism has infectious and contagious leanings.

The present essay aims at surveying the emerging literature on pandemics and inequalities and treats it with a tint of classical liberal common-sensical logic.

Upfront, a synopsis of some discussions that bring in the same playground the idea of pandemic and that of inequality, be their conjunction observed either amid or across nations; after that, a snapshot is being taken, emphasizing the way inequality is portrayed as a social malady, though it can be argued that no matter how unethical or inaesthetic it is, some cures become much worse than the disease.

Thereafter, brief scrutiny concerning the self-proclaimed and self-acclaimed availability of governmental means/resources to address equally/neutrally any kind of socio-economic crises; in the end, a point with respect to how securing/restoring the authentic liberties and the real sense of democracy, while not being an equalizer of fortunes or fortunes (nor needing to be), contributes to balanced moral healing for societies. For clear-mindedness is the crux of cures.

One Incog Pandemic: On a Certain Bias in Investigating the Scene

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) guesstimates a contraction of the global economy by three percent in 2020; the World Bank (WB) foresees the global per capita income to fall four percent and that around 40-60 million people just extracted from extreme poverty may fall back into it; the International Labor Organization (ILO) warns that 1.6 billion informal economy workers, that is almost half of the worldwide workforce, have their means of existence threatened by the insecure times and the insecurity of their jobs, as remittances to developing countries fell by 20 percent; the World Food Programme (WFP) envisages 265 million people to face crisis levels of hunger.

The toll for the global economy could be US$10 trillion. As for those enamored more with mondo-designs than mondo-figures, the Sustainable Development Goals—the 17 globally agreed anti-poverty, pro-equality, pro-peace, pro-environment/climate targets, for whom the moral custodian is the United Nations (UN)—look endangered these days.

The UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, considers that the pandemic shows “the frailties and inequalities of our societies” (UN 2020), as it accommodates a triple emergency of sanitary, humanitarian and developmental natures, perversely intermeshed with the already existing emergencies in both developed and developing countries.

But this can be reversed, as she argues:

We have the tools available globally to provide developing countries with the fiscal space and the resources needed to support the incomes of the poorest; to protect their communities from the worst effects and to be ready for recovery. And building on this, we can recover better—increasing the coverage of essential services; generating green jobs for a green recovery” (Ibid.).

Lesson #1: It is the very call of duty and the responsibility of governments to be ingenious, generous and, surely, green during a pandemic.

Looking then at one of the most composite indicators in developmental economics, prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to measure world education, health and living standards, the Human Development Index (HDI) is expected to decrease for the first time since its inception in 1990.

It is suspected that the decline will equal to rubbing out the progress from the last six years. Their glossing states that

the pandemic was superimposed on unresolved tensions between people and technology, between people and the planet, between the haves and the have-nots” (UNDP 2020a).

The panoply of inequalities is exceptionally varied:

Developing countries, and those in crisis, will suffer the most, along with the already vulnerable all over the world; those that rely on the informal economy, women, those living with disabilities, refugees, and the displaced, as well as those that suffer from stigma” (UNDP 2020b).

In consequence, the UNDP advises, beyond its econometrical projections, to normatively (re)view the policy responses to the corona-crisis via an equity lens. Such a vision is in line with appeals from prominent scholars like A. Sen (2020), who puts on guard that

in the policies against the present pandemic, equity has not been a particularly noticeable priority”.

He then points to the shortages of food and health services during World War II in Britain, which were treated with a more fair distribution of food and medical attention, an approach that prepared the genesis of a more robust post-crisis design—viz., the welfare state. And he concludes:

A concern with equity in crisis management would lessen suffering in many countries now, and offer new ideas to inspire us to build a less unequal world in the future” (Ibid.). This leads us to…

Lesson #2: It is the very call of duty and the responsibility of governments to be ingenious, generous and, surely, green during a pandemic.

Another institutional crusader against inequality is the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), devoted, in its own wording, to “build better policies for better lives”. The researchers enrolled in or collaborating with the organization are as well engaged to collect and compile data coming from areas beyond the current scale and scope of the 37-member organization, preparing assessments and advice for member and non-member governments to document and deliver coordinated policy responses in confronting this enormous collective challenge.

The novel series of OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) is impressive in both breadth and depth, with subjects ranging from (according to the most popular self-evaluation from its website): evaluating the initial impact of containment measures on economic activity; small and medium enterprises responses; education and health systems confidence and resilience; and fiscal policy.

Featuring high on the list, like in the other international-institutional messages, there can be noticed the (interventionist) environmentalist calls: “Governments have a unique chance for a green and inclusive recovery that they must seize—a recovery that not only provides income and jobs, but also has broader goals, integrates strong climate and biodiversity action, and builds resilience” (OECD 2020), according to Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, who terminates the line of reasoning with a solemn promise to “[c]ount on the OECD to support an inclusive, low-emissions and resilient recovery in the post-COVID world. Protecting the planet is the most important inter-generational responsibility we have today” (Ibid.). Once again, this calls for…

Lesson #n: It is the very call of duty and the responsibility of governments to be ingenious, generous and, surely, green during a pandemic.

The Illusive Panacea. On Anti-Inequality as the Fix for All (D)evils

The image of the inherently market-driven, currently coronavirus-enhanced and invariably (inter)governmentally solvable inequalities is, in itself, a parallel pandemic. And a persistent one.

Immersing into the scientific literature devoted to the causes and effects of inequality looks like a life-long project rather than a several-lines-or-pages summary and it exceeds the purpose and pretences of the current essay.

Reflecting on the inequalities of inter-human powerfulness and productivity, of inter-personal natural endowments and artificial statuses, of chances for people belonging to different and divergent classes, races and genders rises an inexhaustible (and an immortal) fascination. It predates Plato’s reflections on the aristocratic rule and it comes back to J.J. Rousseau’s perception of private property as the ultimate originator or perfect epitome for inequality; it rough- or fine-tunes K. Marx’s and F. Engels’ dialectic sophisms, refurbished by the present social-democratic kind of liberal conscience voiced by P. Krugman, T. Piketty, J. Stiglitz, A. Sen or any of their like-minders or disciples.

As for the classical liberal reply to egalitarian nostalgias or utopias, it stays exotic, even eccentric, with L. v. Mises, F. Hayek, M. Rothbard, M. Friedman, et al. being packed wholesale (despite deep doctrinal divides) under the heading of depositories of naïve or noisy un-progressive discourse.

For those interested in eloquent exhortations, yet not necessarily theoretically and historically flawless, on inequalities across populations, times and territories, a must-reads list includes Aghion and Howitt (2009), Acemoglu and Robinson (2012), Stiglitz (2013), Piketty (2014), Atkinson (2015), Galbraith (2016), Scheidel (2017), to name just a few.

When it comes to the branch inequality-economics of pandemics, it is nevertheless in a full process of capital accumulation, to put it metaphorically, and it is rather instrumental than ideational/ideological.

Among the recent works from independent scholars, but subtly aligned with (inter-)governmental bodies’ literature, a palatable and predictable conclusion is consecrating: pandemics raise inequality. There are some notable studies on the socio-economic effects of the pandemics before the 21st century, e.g., Barro, Ursua and Weng (2020) or Jordà, Singh and Taylor (2020) for recent and more distant past scrutiny, as well as hot-off-the-press surveys on sequences of recent episodes, e.g., SARS (2003), H1N1 (2009), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014) and Zika (2016), meant to predict the image or the magnitude of inequality disruption of the COVID-19 unfolding crisis.

Furceri et al. (2020a; 2020b) observe, analyzing recent past experiences, that “pandemics lead to a persistent and significant increase in the net Gini measure of inequality”. The authors make two key observations: firstly, the impact on the net-Gini surmounts the one registered on the market-Gini, therefore deducing that the past public policies might have had some regressive effects; secondly, the preliminary assessments of a series of government programmes directed so far against COVID-19 suggest that, once again, the rich are the main beneficiaries (JCT 2020).

Changing the focus, however, the pandemic has also (apparently) paradoxical features. Mereuță (2020) observes that infections replicate the worldwide GDP distributions, meaning that the most important contributors to global wealth, the so-called node-countries, take the lion’s share also in terms of contaminations, too.

So, do we speak of a disease of the relatively poor, but rather from relatively rich countries, with internal or external liberties as ferocious facilitators? Is (global) inequality the flaw, as is limited freedom the fix?

A Poisonous Musing: On Side-Effects of One-Sided Equality Furores

All in all, most corona-inequality studies state that it is beneficial to add equality concerns in policy responses. However, such a progressive route obscures several perils.

Of collectivist correctivism. Regarding interventionism—be it of social-democratic pedigree (pro-equalization) or conservative one (anti-change)—, two frailties are notable.

Firstly, a culture of public support entitlement (read aid from the state) sets in motion, with a variety of socio-economic categories claiming public props in moments of distress, demanding custom-made regulations, subsidies/grants, charge-free access to public goods for chronic or acute (e.g., of pandemic nature) hardships, whose weightiness can be inflated by the potential receptors and carelessly met (particularly in electoral eves) by the politicians.

Secondly, an erosion of the culture of independence gets instilled, with political entrepreneurship blossoming at the expense of market industriousness, as people accept, during harsh periods (e.g., states of emergency) the “offer [one] can’t refuse”, of giving up freedoms in exchange for economic support and social protection, that only later turn out hardly reversible.

For the praxeological sociology of statist socialization of expropriation and disempowerment, see Hoppe (1989); for an overview of the law-and-economics perspective of the modern Austrian School’s classical-liberal rejoinder, see, as well, Zywicki and Boettke (2017).

Of conceited constructivism. F. Hayek warned us in his Law, Legislation and Liberty trilogy (1973, 1976 and 1979) with regard to the destructive arrogance—a fatal conceit—according to which man is endowed by the mere possession of reason to invent and build social institutions, such as law and morals. He dismissed the attribution of social order simply to rational designs and conscious intentions (constructivist/naïve rationalism).

Constructivism ignores the developmental and discoverable processes which are, in fact, responsible for the actual advancements of our civilization (evolutionary/critical rationalism). In 2020, this lesson is still misapprehended, as governments from the developed countries (in fact, worldwide) thought that their bureau(techno)cratically-designed institutions are so powerful that an exotic pathogen cannot make them budge.

Moreover, the paternalist mentalities instilled by their welfare states have led to the old individual vigilance’s anesthesia, pertaining to the good, old, classical liberal mindset (Croitoru 2020).

Now, calls are made to reform, via top-down policies and on equal-footing principles, healthcare and education, to make lives more digital and greener, even if the best way to make a society vulnerable is to deal with it as a mechanical device to be set and leveled.

Of cynical consequentialism. There are several errors in applying consequential reasoning within social affairs (Iacob 2016).

For instance, the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: if inequality is observed in market economies, it might mean that it exists not because but despite the market element, since there are many aspects related to the policy toolbox that hamper the access of certain people to productive self-sustainability, e.g., inflation, welfare provisions and labor regulations.

Then, there is the issue of the interpersonal comparison, with the troubles associated with the measurement of income, wealth, or chances that are to be leveled; or when they eventually are, concluding that the very fact of pseudo-equalizing has granted an overall betterment, it overlooks subtle behavioral feats (Damoc 2020), not captured in neoclassical macro-modelling.

There is an intertemporal aspect as well, which has, in the case of inequalities, a dual significance: on the one hand, few analysts focus on observing changes in the standard of living for the very same persons during their lifespans (the yesterday’s poor maybe today’s middlemen); on the other hand, the perverse/erosive effects of redistributive-justice measures in time (some reflected on the very statistical distributions of income/wealth) are carelessly missed or misjudged.

Thence, be it in pandemics or not: “Is inequality the issue, or should we fixate on something else—on liberty, on letting it be?”.

Liberty as a Placebo: On Given Versus Un-/forgivable (Un)evenness

In the exhibitionistic world of mass-mediatic capitalism, it is now a fad, if not a compulsion, to measure and compare private fortunes. Most people would care to know their neighbours’ wealth and how they have come to make it (or lose it).

There is no shortage of tops (e.g., Forbes), which the vainglorious try to overtake while the more dissimulative try to keep away from indiscreet eyes. The fact that we are witnessing never-ending dawn of a market economy makes many of us regard the rich not so much as creative drivers of general wealth who serve their fellow men, as opposed to ensnaring them into serfdom, but rather as sinister deviants who defy the law of (allegedly)-natural equality (Rothbard 1974).

The distorted idea of wealth is subject to an implicit presumption of guiltiness. At the same time, for the vast majority, poverty becomes the call sign of those who possess the highest moral virtues. Even philanthropists are blamed for not donating more, even though charity comes from market-values and profit-making. Noteworthy: charities are a capitalist (by-)product.

Eventually, it is fair to understand that, despite any social(ist) experiments, personal freedom is the only sound premise for social welfare—to the extent that the latter is desired, because there are, in the word, free yet austere/ascetic communities as well.

Poverty is, on the other hand, a virtue only when it is pursued with dignity. The idle and unskilled do not qualify for that virtue; even less, if they long in fact to amass riches effortlessly. Those who were impoverished because of theft and robbery also do not gain automatic virtue through their misfortune alone, for virtue is not merely a spiritual patch to fill in material gaps.

Finally, the poor in spirit have the promise of an everlasting inheritance transcending worldly confines, but only if their poorness is assorted with humbleness, not with envy.

That said, material wealth can be morally constructive, alongside hard work and unabridged honesty, patience and persistence against uncertainty, defining traits of the providential, community-builder, more than mere firm-maker, entrepreneur.

Although still bearing the deep print of the Protestant revolution, Christian dogma continues to view wealth with a modicum of moral opprobrium. If wealth was accumulated via deceit, theft, robbery, the sin is obvious. Case closed.

But when we hear the call “Help thy neighbor!”, this does not necessarily equate kindness simply to the dole, nor does it compel us to blindly aid the others to the extent of our nigh-complete patrimonial sacrifice and ruin.

In fact, we cannot truly help the poor by impoverishing ourselves (Jora et al. 2020), at least not sustainably—a notion in fashion this epoch.

If we trust in God, and in the coherence of His work, we should be convinced that the basic logical tenets are entirely in line with moral commandments. You can help others only if you are not helpless—morally or materially.

The road to salvation is not destined exclusively to the monks. For if it were so, our bloodline would have long since died out, yet this does not seem to be the Grand Plan. Conscience passes through the stomach, some say. The catch is that it should not stay there.

We flick through glossy magazines about business trends, we measure wealth in our community, we share this information with the general public and thus we elicit reactions.

Two main poles define the emotions we experience as a result: respect and envy. By reading the true stories behind figures and probing how those individuals have built their fortunes, we can distinguish among those whom we can deem to be creators of wealth in the community and those who have amassed their riches by parasitically confiscating wealth from it.

Deifying and demonizing thriving capitalists without fair judgment do poison the social fabric. We risk instating ever-increasing taxes for the wealthy, and, in blissful democratic ignorance, punishing hard work, patience and perseverance in the face of uncertainty and honesty just as well as punishing idleness, greed and theft.

As an aside, what happens to the money taken from the rich (and the rest of us)? It goes to a breed of rich political animals (parasites/viruses): the state-raptors.

Conclusion

Almost all media outlets entered the frenzy of interrogating global masterminds about, “How the World/Economy Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic” (Foreign Policy 2020a; 2020b).

In response, J. Stiglitz airs that “the coronavirus crisis has been a powerful reminder that the basic political and economic unit is still the nation-state”; R. Shiller warns that “the pandemic has created a wartime atmosphere in which fundamental changes suddenly seem possible”; C. Reinhart speaks of “another nail in the coffin of globalization”; A. Posen foresees that “economic nationalism will increasingly lead governments to shut off their own economies from the rest of the world”; E. Prasad notices that “the world looks to central bankers for deliverance”; while A. Tooze comes with a bleak verdict: “the normal economy is never coming back”. All these ideas represent exquisite bits of realpolitik rumination.

As for ideal politics, i.e., fighting the social injustice of the economic inequalities, there is hardly something like this at hand right now, if ever was. It seems the fight against this inequality scourge is misled. This ethics-and-economics-of-envy, upon which the anti-inequality crusades build-up, is inferior in meaningfulness to the more decent and coherent struggle against unwanted poverty.

True enough, the social game is based on relative perceptions and positions (e.g., market rivalry and competition, the system of relative prices that helps us rationally master scarcities).

Though, installing the fight against inequality as a universal (bad!) habit diverts our individual energies from improving our own state to leveling the playing field even by scraping their yards. This looks like an infinitely more perverse virus, for, as one might have learned, Bruce Willis and bad habits… die hard.


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The article was published in The Visio Journal No. 5.

The article was originally published at: http://visio-institut.org/vaccine-against-viral-inequalities


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