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Corona and Increasing Global Inequality

29.06.2020    Tanja Kleibl, Ronald Lutz

  1. Introduction
  2. Global inequality
  3. Corona in the South: Thick description
  4. Increasing global inequality
  5. Rethinking international social work
  6. Outlook
  7. Literature
  8. Abstract
  9. Authors

Matthias Horx: Something is happening that is changing our existence


The novel virus that spread from animals to humans in China in late 2019 has meanwhile given rise to a pandemic and could bring the world to the brink of a total economic and political collapse. The relationship between local events and global networking has rarely been clearer. The virus was suddenly everywhere, without warning, and is to be seen as an environmental, political and societal problem of globalisation.

However, at the same time the countries of the global world are reacting almost exclusively on a national basis – borders are being closed, travel reduced to almost zero, production chains are in part being disrupted, and citizens are being repatriated from other nations. Solidarity between nations is only rudimentary, and is often ambivalent, unable to protect the most vulnerable groups and countries. The consequences are not foreseeable, but contours are emerging. The virus affects everybody, poor and rich, North and South, but some are affected more directly, harder, and in different ways. Whereas most societies of the North are able to use their resources to more or less cushion the economic and social consequences, such measures will hardly be feasible in the countries of the Global South. This exacerbates the situation in poorer countries and at the same time it increases global inequality.

Global inequality

Global inequality should be seen as a historical phenomenon grown out of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This highlights the exploitative relationship in which the Global North has dominated the Global South, with a decisive influence on the genesis of unequal opportunities for attainment. This has been described by various authors as the “colonial transformation of the world” (Osterhammel 2009; Lessenich 2016). Exploitative processes and hegemony did not disappear in the course of de-colonialization. Neoliberal and economic globalisation with changed structures of exploitation and dependency continued to condition and reinforce forms of global inequality (Beck & Poferl 2010; Lessenich 2016; Weiss 2017, 139).

It is the specific contexts, arising under conditions that promote or inhibit opportunities that may tend to reduce inequalities – as in the welfare states of the Global North – or to reinforce these and create even greater divisions, as in many regions of the Global South (Weiss 2017, 28 f.). This leads to privileges and “imperial lifestyles”, in which the Global North supports a broad level of welfare by continuing to enrich itself from the environmental and societal resources of the Global South (Brand & Wissen 2017).

The interweaving of these processes leads to global inequality, which originates in the national framework and has an impact in a global context which can only be explained in terms of global interactions. This is shown by the wide range of disadvantages and exploitations, extreme and sometimes absolute poverty, malnutrition or lack of access to potable water and sanitary facilities, through to poor medical care and the continued lack of education for all (Lutz 2018).

The Corona virus worsens inequalities in the countries of the Global South, increases the gaps between nations, and exacerbates global inequality. The countries of the North are also facing increasing social and economic problems, but while they are competing to acquire protective equipment, people in the countries of the South are left exposed to the pandemic without protection. They face catastrophes of unknown proportions, they will become even poorer in comparison to the North, the divides between North and South will become even more profound. This situation will be considered on the basis of selected examples using “thick description” (Geertz 2003), offering a new view of global inequality.

Corona in the South: Thick description

The crisis has a massive impact on the most vulnerable, threatening direst poverty. Help organisations such as Brot für die Welt or Misereor have warned that more people may die as a result of the lock-downs than from the virus itself. The slums and favelas in the Global South are in no way prepared to cope. They lack all the essentials, such as clean water, infrastructure and medical care.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a three-week lock-down over the entire country (sueddeutsche 31.3.2020). As a result, millions of migrant workers lost their jobs and lodgings. These people have no financial reserves and so in their desperation they fled New Delhi (and other cities) in droves. Crowds of people were fighting to get on the last buses, others just started walking. Stranded in the crisis, their only hope was to return to the refuge of their home villages. Camps were set up on the outskirts of the cities where they could be isolated.

The South African government introduced a strict lockdown in March (vorwaerts 30.3.2020). These measures also led to existential distress, although the government announced a number of socio-economic programmes to support the most vulnerable. With the onset of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the virus could have disastrous social and political consequences in the townships. The lockdown measures already threaten the survival of many who scrape by from one week to the next, or even from day to day. Millions of day labourers and their families find themselves faced with existential problems.

South Africa is a political and economic heavyweight on the continent, but the social inequality there is the greatest worldwide (Lutz 2018). Nearly a quarter of South Africans live below the absolute poverty line, malnutrition is a problem for children in particular. The economic crisis caused by the virus will confront most of these people with life-threatening consequences. An extensive outbreak of COVID-19 can also overwhelm the health system, which is already stretched to the limit by high rates of HIV-Aids and tuberculosis.

Most African governments have imposed lock-downs. But shutting down public life is an approach that has already has already been stretched to the limit in Europe. In Africa, and elsewhere, it could even be counterproductive, because in particular in cities, where the population density is greatest, social upheavals could accelerate the spread of the virus. The virologist Christian Drosten has warned that in the poorer countries of the Global South the result could be “unimaginable scenes" (sueddeutsche 5.4.2020).

The particular drama of the situation in the Global South is also related to the structural adaptation measures imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have led to drastic cutbacks and privatisation in the health systems in many countries of the Global South. For example, Malawi, one of the poorest countries, has only 30 intensive care beds for a population of 18 million. Similarly, Bangladesh faces a shortage of urgently needed ventilators; it has only 1800 devices, or an average of one for every 93,273 people.

Save the Children has drawn attention to the situation, in particular also for children, in a refugee camp in Bangladesh near the border to Myanmar (sueddeutsche 6.4.2020). Malnutrition, unhygienic conditions, poor health care and overcrowding have acute implications (Khan 2020). As with the situation of refugees on the Greek islands, this can also lead to a backlash among the local population. People in the camps are particularly vulnerable to the virus, not only because of the overcrowding, but also because of the poor infrastructure and the inadequate medical care (Lutz 2017). And despite the spread of the virus, the West still continues with arms exports to many countries of the Global South, where armed conflicts are forcing even more people to seek refuge.

Against this background, Lars Bedurke asks what the everyday economic life in the South will be like (Bedurke 2020). Many people there work in the informal sector, have a number of different jobs, and any increase in their earnings is often below the rate of inflation. Even before the crisis, the earnings often did not last until the next pay-day, and without savings the loss of even one day’s wages is a disaster. In many countries the family income also depends on remittances from relatives abroad who are no longer able to work as street vendors, cleaners or household helps. Anyone falling sick in such a situation, or having to care for dependants without any form of self-protection can face an existential threat.

The World Food Programme of the United Nations (WFP) anticipates a major food crisis as a result of the Corona pandemic (neues-deutschland, 3.4.2020). The alarm bells are ringing according to Bettina Lüscher, spokesperson of the Berlin WFP office: “We are worried that it will become a very big crisis.” Already, the WFP is struggling to provide food to 87 million people in more than 80 countries facing the consequences of war, climate change, droughts, and floods; with the Corona pandemic this will become an even greater challenge.

It is not possible to foresee the long-term impacts of the pandemic. Poverty, need and hunger are increasing. And there may also be new migration movements in the wake of the crisis, which again will have the greatest impact on the already overburdened countries of the Global South. The people who set off towards the European Union will be crowded in camps which are unhygienic and surrounded by waste.

Indigenous peoples are also particularly endangered (n-tv, 1.4.2020). Colombia confirmed cases of Coronavirus infections among indigenous peoples living in bitter poverty in emergency camps and tents on the outskirts of some towns. Health experts fear that the virus could spread rapidly there, particularly because these groups generally have less immunity to diseases that affect other parts of the population. Without adequate health care structures, indigenous families are particularly threatened, not only in Colombia.

The Canadian government provides financial support for indigenous families to enable them to spread more widely across the Arctic wilderness (Deutschlandfunk, 31.3.2020). They normally live together in large family groups, but many now want to move out to hunting or fishing lodges in the wild, where they can more easily maintain social distancing. However, it is not possible to say what the implications will be for their medical care and their economic situation, or what the societal and cultural consequences will be.

Increasing global inequality

Worryingly, the Corona crisis can bring the economic progress in the countries of the South to a halt or even lead to it being reversed. Existing economic potential is weakened and the disruptions make poor countries even poorer. Education and health systems will be overwhelmed. The measures adopted in the countries of the South, such as social distancing, are a copy of measures in the North, but without the same levels of support. The considerable global inequality between North and South will be increased and become more entrenched.

Many countries of the Global South will not be in a position to react to the pandemic with effective financial measures. The economies of these countries are threatened with collapse. The virus affects everybody, but it does not affect everyone in the same way. The impact is greatest for the poor, the most vulnerable, the wretched of the Earth. We see this in Germany too, but here there are social security systems, even if these are not effective in all cases. Here too the impact is greater on the most vulnerable: refugees, poor families, those in precarious employment, people with disabilities, or the homeless.

The countries that are worst affected have hardly any developed systems of social security: there are no furlough schemes, no unemployment payments, and no comprehensive public health services. Access to health care is unequally distributed, and many find themselves excluded from it. The countries are unable to provide support schemes for small, medium-sized and large enterprises, or for the large army of day-labourers. As a result, many of the businesses will disappear, and many people will find themselves without any work and security. Whether are not they are infected, they are likely to become beggars or must hope for support from families that are already overstretched. As a consequence, the South could become even more dependent on the North. This can lead to the reproduction and new introduction of colonial structures and to the cementing in place of unfair aid structures. This would strengthen the “imperial lifestyle” of the North even further in the crisis. 

Rethinking international social work

As a result of the crisis, social work is confronted with the worldwide worsening of existing social problems. But in the context of the development of the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the coming global economic crisis, it is also faced with completely new challenges. Social work has always also involved some disaster relief (Treptow 2007; Schmitt 2020), and it has acquired relevant experience, but this field has now moved into the focus of attention. This means addressing such topics much more intensely, and to see these as a challenge. It offers an opportunity to review and refine the profile of international social work.

There have long been calls to think beyond national borders, and in part this has been put into practice. The crisis shows just how important this is. Now is the time to enter into exchanges with others, in particular with colleagues in the Global South. This exchange of experience has two components: Firstly, it shows what problems are being encountered in other places and what approaches to the crisis are being adopted; reviewing the similarities and differences makes it possible to draw conclusions for ones own work. Secondly, this global crisis is clearly a consequence of globalisation, in which the countries of the Global North have better overall technical resources but, due to their ambivalent solidarity, they continue to think and act for the most part in national categories. This must be made public and discussed internationally.

The current situation also demonstrates that international social work is “interwoven social work”, which must act locally but must also be part of an international network (Lutz & Stauss 2016). This networking clearly demonstrates the necessity for global solidarity and an exchange about problems and concepts. This solidarity is already shown in existing international networks; the IFSW was one of the first organisations, to position itself on international solidarity and exchange. It is to be hoped that international social work can recognise its system relevance and raise its public profile.

Social work must become more political at all levels, and the current situation offers the opportunity to emphasise the consequences and through this to draw attention to long-existing inequalities that are currently becoming more intense. This opens up the way to reconsidering the hegemony of the Global North that can also become apparent in social work.


The crisis will not lead to the end of the world, but it will mark the beginning of a new era. It remains to be seen what importance the Global North will then have as a global hegemonic structure. The crisis is a signal that this hegemony is problematic, and could perhaps result in growing resistance and counter-movements. An internationally operating social work must adopt a clear position, as a (political) voice and actor for global und international solidarity – something that seems to have been forced into the background at present.

The message of the World Social Forum, “A different world is possible”, was never more relevant. This requires a radical change in perspective, language, and categories, in particular in the time after the crisis. We are now in a situation which calls for solidarity, because only with international cooperation will it be possible to successfully tackle this global challenge. As Karl Popper wrote: “The future is wide open. It depends on us, on all of us.” (Popper 1958)


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The Corona virus and the Covid-19 pandemic could bring the world to the verge of a total economic and political collapse. Nearly all countries have meanwhile been affected. While it affects everybody, it does this in different ways. The disease will exacerbate the social problems in the rich societies of the North, but the pandemic will have particularly severe economic and societal consequences in the countries of the Global South. While the Global North is working to establish limiting measures which dampen the effects, the Global South is exposed to the full impact. In these societies disastrous consequences are to be expected, and poverty, hunger and migration will become more intensive. As a result, the global inequality between nations will increase. In this crisis, solidarity across national borders is called for – but at present this is precisely what seems to be lacking. At the same time, international social work will have to redefine its orientation.


Prof. Dr. Tanja Kleibl
University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
Social Work, Migration and Diversity
Tiepolostraße 6
97070 Würzburg
fon: 0049 (0) 931 3511-8225

Prof. Dr. phil. Ronald Lutz
University of Applied Sciences Erfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
International Social Work
Sociology and Social Politics
Altonaer Str. 25
D-99085 Erfurt
fon: 0049 (0) 361 6700-510/701

Cite this publication
Kleibl, Tanja and Ronald Lutz, 2020. Corona and Increasing Global Inequality. In: socialnet International [online]. 29.06.2020 [Date of citation: 23.10.2021]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: