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Coronavirus underscores and might worsen health and income inequalities in the US

Written by Diane Archer

Nobel laureate and Princeton University economics professor Angus Deaton explains how the novel coronavirus pandemic underscores inequalities in the US. He suggests that without major reforms to our for-profit health care system and to the labor market these inequalities will become even more pronounced. 

Deaton spoke with Agence France-Presse about how COVID-19 meant higher death rates for people of color and essential workers. He also spoke about the high unemployment rate and rising uninsurance rates. Even people with insurance are struggling to pay out-of-pocket costs for their health care. 

People who are less educated are particularly at risk. Either they are nonessential workers and are at risk of losing their jobs and endangering their financial well-being. Or, they are essential workers and are at risk of getting COVID-19.

He explains that health care is “a major source of inequality,” in the US. Other countries do not have this issue because they regulate prices and do not leave it to the market to deliver health insurance. Deaton says “Anything is better than pretending that the market can deliver healthcare–because it can’t.” Rather, the market takes money from ordinary individuals and turns it over to wealthier individuals and corporations who exploit them.

In an op-ed for Project-Syndicat, Angus and his wife, Princeton professor Anne Case, say that the pandemic and attendant public displeasure over the exorbitant costs of health care, along with anger fueling the nationwide protests over structural racism, could trigger a change for the better. Or not.

Historically, pandemics have led to greater equality. But, this time around, Deaton and Case are not at all sure it will. In fact, it could worsen health and income inequalities in the US.

Angus and Deaton are the authors of “Deaths of Despair.” Deaths of despair are deaths by suicide, alcohol-related liver disease, and drug overdose. In their book, they document how these deaths have increased quickly, more than doubling, since the mid-199o’s. In 1995, there were about 65,000 deaths of despair, and  in 2018, there were about 158,000. They attribute the increase in these deaths to Americans with less than a four-year college education, who they find experience greater disability, loneliness and pain.

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