Inequality and the coronavirus

Doesn’t the coronavirus pandemic make us all equal? Where will society stand after the crisis? What can the welfare state do, and will the population’s trust remain unchanged? Professor Marius R. Busemeyer, equality researcher at the University of Konstanz, answers these questions in an interview.

Mr Busemeyer, your research focuses on inequality in society. Doesn’t the coronavirus pandemic make us all equal?

On the one hand, it’s true, of course, that the virus can strike any one of us to an equal extent. In a certain way, high-income groups could even be more greatly affected because they are on average more mobile. However, the social and economic impacts of the crisis will certainly hit low-income groups far harder. Employees in simple, service sector occupations or the manufacturing sector as well as the self-employed are affected by the contact restrictions far more than staff in larger companies or the public sector. In addition, low-paid workers have fewer reserves to compensate for a sudden loss of income. The crisis is therefore not making us all equal right now. In fact, it will intensify social inequality rather than mitigate it.

When the current crisis situation eases off, in what situation will we as a society then find ourselves: Which inequalities will have increased and which ones decreased?

At the moment this is naturally difficult to say, the more so because it significantly depends on how long the crisis and the associated measures continue. One thing is quite clear already: The coronavirus crisis represents a radical change for the whole of society. But who will get through this difficult period and how well will vary considerably. Certain economic sectors, such as hotels and restaurants, tourism, culture and the travel industry, will be more greatly affected. The manufacturing sector will also face major challenges if the lockdown continues for longer. Generally speaking, employees of larger companies could come through the crisis a little better: Their employers either have greater reserves or are more likely to receive state aid. By contrast, the jobs of employees in small and medium-sized companies are more severely threatened, even if special support measures are earmarked for these firms in coronavirus rescue packages. Employees in the public sector will come through the crisis better, at least in the short term, provided that the need to economize does not have an impact on public spending. One way or another, the crisis will pose enormous challenges for the labour markets and thus also social policy and public finances.

“The crisis is therefore not making us all equal right now: In fact, it will intensify social inequality rather than mitigate it.”

Professor Busemeyer, inequality researcher at the University of Konstanz

An important topic in your research work is the welfare state. What impact will the crisis have on it?

The crisis is confronting the welfare state with challenges that are historically unique. In the short term, the greatest challenges clearly lie in the health sector. Here it’s becoming more and more evident that countries which have implemented extensive spending cuts in this area over the past years – either as the result of political and ideological decisions or the constraints of the last economic and financial crisis – are being hit particularly hard. In the medium and longer term, other areas of the welfare state, especially labour market policy but also education policy, will be particularly challenged. I think that the crisis could even cause a turnaround in socio-political priorities: Instead of saving costs and introducing an increasing number of market-like instruments, the crisis could lead to the state playing a greater role in social policy, with an approach based on the precautionary principle: A policy that invests in society, that keeps in mind the possibility of extreme situations and prepares itself for them, e.g. by keeping more ICU beds and, above all, more personnel ready than are necessary at short notice under normal circumstances. However, this can only succeed if the spending constraints as a result of the crisis, which will hit public finances, are not too severe.

Video Interview with Marius Busemeyer

At the present time, rescue packages with vast sums of money are being put together everywhere to help those affected financially. Do such measures strengthen people’s trust in the welfare state?

Here we have to differentiate between long-term and short-term perspectives, and both are connected. Traditionally liberal, that is, scarcely developed welfare states such as the USA are forced now to implement extensive short-term measures in order to compensate for structural deficits in the health sector and labour market policy or at least mitigate them. As you know, a rescue package was put together in the USA a few days ago to the tune of US$ 2 trillion – an incredible sum. Nevertheless, this programme will not be able to completely cushion certain deficits, such as the large number of people with no health insurance or the precarious protection of the unemployed in the USA. In Germany, the short-term support measures build on comparatively stable welfare state structures. The rapid reaction to the crisis by German politicians also shows that a polarization of the political elite has not yet advanced to the same degree here as in other countries, especially the USA. In this respect, I think that the crisis could strengthen people’s trust in the welfare state and perhaps in politics in the first place, even if, in the short term, there is criticism time and again of bottlenecks in the healthcare system.

Let’s talk about work: At the present time, millions of people are working from home, the culture of compulsory presence as the key to productive working suddenly seems less essential. The digitalization of the working world is getting a boost.
Are we experiencing right now the birth of a far more flexible relationship between employers and employees?

I think that this is only one aspect: For a certain group of employees, the crisis could indeed accelerate the penetration of new, more flexible and digital forms of work organization. This group is comparatively privileged, it will be less affected by the crisis than other groups. At the same time, this contributes to further divergence in everyday working life. There will be this privileged group on the one hand and, on the other hand, those whose professions involve physical work or compulsory presence. These new lines of division were already starting to emerge before the crisis too, but they are likely to become more distinct through the crisis. Care workers and supermarket cashiers are indeed being celebrated as the heroes of the day in the coronavirus crisis. However, apart from the health risks that these employee groups must currently endure, it’s far from guaranteed that care workers’ wages will rise after the crisis or that supermarket cashiers won’t be replaced by self-checkouts after all.

Professor Marius R. Busemeyer is professor for political science at the Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Konstanz and spokesperson of the Konstanz Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality”. His research work centres on social inequalities, comparative political economy, education and social policy and public opinion on welfare state activities.

Another field in which you’re conducting research is education policy. Many families right now have to juggle family and professional duties along with their children’s education: Because schools and nurseries are closed, children are at home and supposed somehow to carry on learning while their parents have to deal with an unusual work situation. Will that leave a mark? 

Here too, this depends on how long the crisis situation lasts. Nevertheless, the crisis could reinforce existing inequalities in this area too. Parents’ social and educational background is known to have a considerable influence on children’s educational performance. Learning together at school can normally at least partly mitigate this effect. A longer phase of home schooling can now, however, lead to children from different social strata returning to school after this phase with very different levels of learning progress. Schoolchildren from educated, middle-class households are more able to count on the support and guidance of their parents currently working from home than children of single mothers whose jobs are acutely at risk and who cannot rely at the moment on external supervision. What’s more, children from underprivileged families must overcome greater hurdles in order to motivate themselves to participate in online forms of teaching if, for example, there is no laptop or computer at home. At least here, education policy could react quickly by making the necessary equipment available for underprivileged families. We certainly also need to think at the political level about shaping overall conditions – e.g. concerning final exams and similar issues – in such a way that the crisis doesn’t lead to one-sided disadvantages for this year’s school leavers.

In a series of interviews, experts from the University of Konstanz from different departments and from its Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality" provide information on current issues related to the spread of the coronavirus.


Paul Töbelmann

By Paul Töbelmann - 14.04.2020