Now that the novel coronavirus has left the confines of Wuhan, China, the wealthy are taking extreme measures to protect themselves. This includes Airinum masks, private jets, private emergency rooms and more. Paranoia around this epidemic has transcended class boundaries, but not everyone has access to this level of protection.
Responding like this is only productive on the margin, but it’s not surprising. They’re responding in ways that are familiar to them. Even though funding the relief effort will ultimately benefit everyone — the rich included — they find the certainty of their health right now more worrying.
There’s also no available cultural script to follow in this case. The most natural comparisons, SARS and Ebola, were contained within a cluster of countries. As a result, there was generally less urgency for the wealthy, and the rest of us in wealthy countries, to be hands-on with the relief effort. Furthermore, in public health emergencies, most people’s first thoughts aren’t celebrities or wealthy figures — they are doctors and public sector officials.
Yet given how sneakily and easily coronavirus spreads, it will not discriminate based on class and status once it becomes the epidemic that we actually need to be concerned about. Although they can choose how they spend their money, it’s more logical and just to put the majority of that wealth towards finding a cure.
But, is it their responsibility?
These measures will not stand up to the virus when it’s everywhere. The most obvious critique is to question why the rich are not contributing to the research teams that are rushing to find a cure and nip coronavirus in the bud. If they weren’t spending their money on frivolous things, such as delicately scented hand sanitizer, they could instead speed up the research process and help the entire world with a drug or vaccine.
In fact, it is likely that the wealthy would be able to pay for these protective measures and contribute a small sum to research efforts. We are justified in calling them selfish.
However, research is going to take time no matter what; we can’t exactly rush scientific innovation and biological processes up by throwing our money at them. And given the anxiety surrounding the global economy, it’s unlikely that governments aren’t already contributing a notable sum to this cause.
That being said, it is a privilege to even ponder what preventative measures to take. We need to focus our attention on those who have already been affected and whose livelihoods, not just their health, are being hurt by this virus.
At the moment, we lack the testing capabilities to get an accurate sense of where the disease is and where it’s heading. Developing countries are particularly at risk because their governments simply lack the funding necessary to properly contain the virus. These countries are often deeply integrated in the global supply chain, and hysteria has halted production and exports.
Subsequently, the people who work in the factories for large multinational companies are likely to be sent home or mercilessly laid off. They don’t even have enough time to dedicate to their health because they’re more concerned about paying for their rent or for their next meal. How can we take care of these people who could only make ends meet by working everyday and no longer can because of government-imposed quarantines?
The wealthy do not deserve our sympathy. Their ability to jet around to avoid virus hotspots or simply reside in a country that has not been impacted yet marks them as safe. Do they know their wealth doesn’t make them immune to the virus?