By Mursal Rahimi
Surrounded by rose petals in her bathtub in a £6 million Lisbon mansion where she has been self-isolating, Madonna proclaims that COVID-19 is the great equaliser. In a now-deleted video she posted to her Instagram account she said: “What’s wonderful about it, is that it’s made us all equal in many ways”. The video is one in an obscure series she dubbed ‘Madam X’s Quarantine Diaries’ and uploaded for her 15.5 million Instagram following in March of this year. At that point, COVID-19 had caused over 14,500 deaths worldwide. Eight months later, the global death count stands at 1,038, 254.
While the pandemic is still developing, early research has mapped out trends that indicate how COVID-19 has not been the ‘great equalizer’, but instead exacerbates existing inequalities within our society. In the US, Black and Hispanic Americans constituted two thirds of the deaths recorded between February to May 2020. Financial instability from job losses has triggered a housing crisis and mass evictions, leaving those in the lowest income brackets without a home and vulnerable to exposure to the virus. Johan Galtung introduced the concept of ‘structural violence’ which can be used to understand the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 across ethnic and low income communities. Structural violence draws attention to how interactions between political, economic, social and cultural structures can cause and further human suffering. All individuals exist within these structures, but some benefit from them while others sink further into disadvantage.
The experience of COVID-19 is distinct if you are poor or ethnic. According to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ‘intersectionality’ thesis, those structural conditions often overlap, compounding the suffering of already disadvantaged communities. In this way COVID-19 both acts as a threat to public health as well as an accelerant to existing structural violence arising from racism and classism.
So when celebrities pledged that ‘we’re in all this together’ and demanded that we stay at home, they could not have been further from the point. As people flocked to supermarkets wrestling over pasta and toilet paper, celebrities with a net worth of millions of dollars were urging their followers to donate to food banks. If you were able to sit through the entirety of the three minute long cover video of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ orchestrated by Gal Gadot and featuring a slew of her celebrity peers singing off key and grinning at their iPhones – firstly, congratulations. Secondly, I am sure you too noticed that the response in the comments represented an overwhelming consensus: we’re not impressed. There’s something so obviously painful and wilfully ignorant about asking people to ‘imagine no possessions’ from your home in the Hollywood Hills. Formerly an emblem of meritocracy, celebrities were champions of the belief that with hard work and talent you could succeed. They floated between the elite and the ordinary person, with rags to riches stories that encapsulated the neoliberal fantasy: you too could one day rise to the top if you just put the effort in. Now celebrities are no longer relatable, aspirational or endearing to an audience that has been traumatised by the realities of a global pandemic.
While the actions of these celebrities are well reported by Twitter or TMZ, much more sinister is the unseen class of the uber-wealthy who have been able to thrive under the conditions of COVID-19. In the US alone, billionaires’ wealth ballooned by $845 billion within the first six months of the pandemic. With courier services in far greater demand than ever before with purchases inspired by quarantine boredom, Jeff Bezos became the first person in the world to amass $200 billion. At the same time, over 13.5 million Americans remain out of work and struggling for their lives.
However, we do not need to look across the ocean to see structural violence arising from this pandemic; the disparate experiences of COVID-19 along lines of wealth are apparent in Australia. Some of Sydney’s most affluent suburbs in Waverley became early hotspots during the city’s first wave of the virus. Despite Bondi, Bronte and Vaucluse representing a majority of NSW’s cases, only two of 151 public health order fines issued by NSW Police by April were in Waverley. One-third of these fines were issued predominantly in South Western Sydney including the suburbs of Canterbury, Bankstown, Liverpool and Fairfield. Murray Lee, Professor of Criminology at the University of Sydney Law School, suggests that this illustrated a map of disadvantage where those in low socioeconomic areas – despite there being a lower incidence of COVID-19 cases – were more likely to be policed and fined.
The aggressive lockdown of nine public housing blocks in North Melbourne further speaks to how structural violence unfolds in Australia. Although the Victorian Government failed to quarantine travellers returning from a ski vacation to Aspen who did not self-isolate, it was the residents of these public housing estates who were before plunged into a hard and heavily police enforced lockdown with no notice. In response to mismanagement of food supplies by the Department of Health and Human Services, it was the young African, Muslim and migrant residents who mobilised and ensured families weren’t left hungry or confused about their current condition. The #freethe9blocks hashtag on Twitter tracked the efforts of these residents to coordinate an effective response to the lockdown and disseminate vital information about their treatment at the hands of the state. Scheherazade Bloul considered the lockdown of the towers and the police response as embedded in the colonial legacies of this country, dating back to its origins as a penal colony.
Race and class have fundamentally shaped both the experiences of and responses to COVID-19. While it is nice to entertain the idea that the white and wealthy have espoused – that “we’re all in this together” – it is unfounded to believe that the disparate experiences of COVID-19 are not directly linked to how we benefit from the same structures that disadvantage others. Despite what Madonna may believe, COVID-19 very much cares about ‘how rich you are, how famous you are…where you live’ and is a far cry from being the ‘great equaliser’.
 CDC, “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report”, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, July 17 2020 <https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6928e1.htm?s_cid=mm6928e1_w >.
 Deena Zaru, “Mass evictions’ on the horizon as US confronts coronavirus housing crisis”, ABC News, May 1 2020, <https://abcnews.go.com/US/mass-evictions-horizon-us-confronts-coronavirus-housing-crisis/story?id=70367541>
 Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research, no 6(3) (1969): 167-191.
 Kimberle Crenshaw, “The urgency of intersectionality” TED, 2016 <https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality/discussion>.
 Saloni Sardana, “US billionaires’ wealth grew by $845 billion during the first six months of the pandemic” Business Insider, September 18 2020 <https://www.businessinsider.com.au/us-billionaires-wealth-net-worth-pandemic-covid-billion-2020-9?r=US&IR=T>.
 Pallavi Singh and Laura Chung, “Police issue $165,000 in COVID-19 fines, but only two in Sydney’s worst-affected area” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 9 2020 <https://www.smh.com.au/national/police-issue-165-000-in-covid-19-fines-but-only-two-in-sydney-s-worst-affected-area-20200409-p54ik3.html>.
 David Mjia-Canales, “Public Housing Residents are Being Punished For the Victorian Government’s Mistakes” Junkee, July 8 2020, <https://junkee.com/public-housing-victorian-government/260997>.