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Coronavirus exposes the divide between China's rich and poor

Sou-Jie van Brunnersum
February 25, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak in China has come down hard on the country's poor who cannot afford to be quarantined, have less access to supplies, and do not have the money or the connections to leave the country.

Residents wear protective masks as they line up in the supermarket on February 12, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China
Image: Getty Images

As China's coronavirus outbreak continues, unprecedented quarantine measures have been imposed affecting some 58 million people. To date, there are nearly 80,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and more than 77,000 of them are in China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has described the coronavirus outbreak as the "largest public health emergency" since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Despite Beijing's promises of stamping out social and economic disparities, inequality remains a major problem in China. The coronavirus crisis has come to clearly demonstrate the impact of these inequalities on public health and access to services. Experts warn low- and middle-income Chinese will suffer the most as the epidemic continues.

"Income disparity certainly makes a lot of difference in crisis-stricken China, and Hubei in particular," Kent Deng, a professor of economic history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told DW.

The cost of food, medicines and supplies have peaked since the outbreak, but "those with a deep pocket will be able to maintain their lifestyle regardless," Deng said, adding that lower and middle classes "will become impoverished this time next year" once their savings have dried up.

According to the economist, China's "well-to-do class" counts for around 50 million in a total population of 1.4 billion. "The vast majority living hand to mouth cannot possibly afford the outbreak of the new virus," he warned.

Read more: Coronavirus: How hospitals in China's Wuhan kept the sick away

No safety net for informal workers

The city of Wuhan in China's Hubei province —the epicenter of the virus outbreak — was placed under lockdown on January 23. Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said that the "rich in Wuhan enjoy much better conditions with the lockdown in place."

For those who can afford it, there is home delivery available of meals, groceries, and certain medicines in quarantined cities like Wuhan. Delivery drivers wearing face masks deliver anything imaginable to people's homes — from face masks to margaritas.

Alongside doctors and nurses, delivery workers have also been hailed as "heroes" by many in China for their hard work. They are also praised for risking their own health to keep the virus from spreading by helping others stay at home.

However, food delivery drivers or small shop workers cannot stop working because they lack savings or social support. Many delivery drivers are also stigmatized as potential carriers of the coronavirus.

Read more: Coronavirus: China mainly interested in 'safeguarding the regime'

White-collar professionals can afford to stay home and often have sufficient savings that allow them to halt work for a period of time. Many white-collar jobs can also be done remotely.

"Many workers are employed informally, which makes it impossible to receive social security protection such as unemployment insurance … it's difficult for them to be out of work and they are more vulnerable to catching the virus," said Christina Maags, a lecturer in Chinese politics at London's SOAS China Institute.

She added that China's underdeveloped welfare state exacerbates inequalities as low-income workers are not protected by a social safety net.

According to Fei Yan, an associate professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, lower-income Chinese living in cities are also vulnerable to overcrowding and lack of healthcare options.

For example, in smaller houses and apartments, it is more difficult to separate sick and healthy family members. 

"If a case breaks out in a poor family without a two-story house, it might be a tragedy in the end," Yan said.

Read more: Coronavirus: A dramatic escape from Wuhan's lockdown

The power of 'guanxi' networking

"Social status is highly relevant to health, as well as access to information and network support," said Yan, adding that it is important for China to establish a more comprehensive social welfare system to serve the country's "underprivileged social groups."

Travel has also become a right of the rich in China. Since the outbreak, travel restrictions have been imposed that will keep the average person from moving. But those who know the right people can sometimes still get around.

"When people have received approval to travel abroad, or were able to buy plane tickets, this is commonly not only the result of being able to pay, but also of knowing the right people," said Maags, adding that China's wealthy were more likely to have political connections which "enable them to circumvent restrictions others face, especially during a health crisis."

Personalized networks of power in China are known as "Guanxi," and in China money and connections go hand in hand.

"Cases in which high-income people have managed to escape abroad demonstrate the pervasiveness of corruption in China, where your 'guanxi' networks are equally as important as the money you have," said Maags.

However, money and connections cannot shield everyone from coronavirus. Expert Deng said that the crisis might change how Chinese perceive their society and government.

"The picture is rather ugly," said Deng. The coronavirus epidemic is "certainly doing very little to support the overpublicized 'China Dream.' Rather, it may well be the 'China Nightmare.'"

Read more: Why a coronavirus upsurge could be devastating for South Asia

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