How to Think about Privilege in the Time of a Pandemic

Updated: May 3


Image by Hank Williams from Pixabay

A special right or advantage that is available only to a particular person or group. That’s the technical definition of the word “privilege.”


In the past two months, as the pandemic has spread across the world, it has brought with it devastating global health and economic consequences.


It has also changed how we must think about what it means to have privilege in 2020.


Privilege in 2020 perfectly visualized in a single chart

Visual Capitalist created the chart below.


  • The vertical axis is the average income of each occupation.

  • The horizontal axis shows the relative risk of exposure to COVID-19 for workers in each occupation.


The true measure of privilege in 2020 is the ability to maintain a high level of income with little or no exposure to COVID-19.


That is what this chart displays.


  • Top left: Occupations with the highest income and the lowest exposure to COVID-19. These are the most privileged people in society today.

  • Bottom left: Occupations with the lowest income and the lowest exposure to COVID-19.

  • Top right: Occupations with the highest income and highest exposure to COVID-19.

  • Bottom right: Occupations with the lowest income and the highest exposure to COVID-19. These are the least privileged people in society today.


Economists are the most privileged people in society in 2020

What could be more appealing than to have zero work-related exposure to COVID-19 and continue earning a six-figure salary?


I would argue that nothing is more appealing under the present circumstances, which is why economists are the most privileged group of people in 2020.


As an economist, I am uniquely qualified to speak to this privilege.


First, let’s consider the three variables Visual Capitalists used to determine an occupation’s risk of exposure to COVID-19.

  1. How much physical contact with other people is required in your job.

  2. The physical distance you can keep with co-workers.

  3. Exposure to disease.


As an economist who develops public policy for a non-profit, here are my primary work duties.


  • Working with spreadsheets and data.

  • Writing memos.

  • Taking phone calls.

  • Writing emails.

  • Developing and evaluating policy positions.


All of these duties I have been performing from home for the past six weeks. Meaning, I have precisely zero work-related exposure to COVID-19.


At the same time, there has been no concern about my organization’s ability to make payroll, and I have not missed a single paycheck.


From a professional perspective, the pandemic has been no more than a mild inconvenience for me. That is why economists and any high-income earners who can work from home are the most privileged group in society in 2020.


Orderlies and low earning medical workers are the unsung heroes of 2020

On the other end of the spectrum, we have workers earning relatively low wages with a high degree of work-related exposure to COVID-19.


Orderlies fit that description perfectly.


One of the primary duties of an orderly is to help patients perform day to day activities such as personal hygiene, eating, and moving around.


This requires a high degree of physical contact and close proximity to patients with various medical and health concerns. By definition of their work duties, orderlies are at a relatively high degree of exposure.


While at the same time, they only earn $26,000 per year on average.


Orderlies and other low-earning front line medical workers are without a double the unsung heroes of this crisis, and we are all lucky that they continue to show up to work.

The dentist’s dilemma, your money, or your health?

Dentists represent a unique subset of workers.


  • They are among the highest income earners in society.

  • They also spend the majority of their day less than a foot away from people’s open mouths. This means they have one of the highest risks of exposure to COVID-19.


This leads to difficult choices for dentists.


  • To continue working and earning a high income and exposing themselves to high risks of contracting COVID-19.

  • Or stop working and remove their exposure to the virus while going without income for an undetermined amount of time.

For some dentists, there is no choice. Fewer people are going to the dentist, so there will be less work for dentists.


I know one dentist who fits this description. He has no patients scheduling appointments and, as a result, has no work right now.


While this reduces the health risks to himself and his family, it is a stressful financial situation. Someone who ordinarily is bringing in a mid-six-figure income suddenly has no income. The most stressful part is that he has no idea when he will be able to go back to work again.


However, there will continue to be dental emergencies, which creates a dilemma for some dentists to prioritize their work duties or their health.


I know another dentist who focuses on dental emergencies. She has continued to work consistently during the pandemic.


She describes how much anxiety she has at work every day. She explained the procedures she performs as the equivalent of having someone caught and sneeze in your face for an hour straight.


No amount of protective gear could make me feel comfortable working on people’s mouths all day long.


This is an example of how the pandemic has changed how we need to think about privilege.


A group like dentists, who are typically among the most privileged people in society, are now forced to make a choice between their money and their health.


Owning a house has never been a more enormous privilege

I’ve always looked at the decision to buy a house as a financial decision. Is all of the money spent on purchasing, financing, and maintaining a home likely to make me wealthier in the long run?


The past two months have made me appreciate my house in ways I never thought possible.


My family, I live in a 3-bedroom, 2 bathroom detached house. It is a beautiful home, but I have often complained to my wife about how much money we spend to live in this house. I would use spreadsheets to show her how much money we could make if we sold the house and invested our profits.


I won’t be pulling those spreadsheets out anytime soon.


Being confined to my home for the past two months has made me realize that a house has value beyond its financial value.


I have friends who live in small and expensive apartments in downtown Toronto. Their experience of being confined to a 700 square foot apartment compared to our two-level house has made me grateful for our house.


I never realized how much of a luxury it is to simply have a private entrance to my home.

If we need to go out for a grocery run or take our son to a medical appointment, we can walk out our front door and into our car without coming into contact with anyone.


Try maintaining a six-foot separation from other people if you live in a high-rise apartment building and need to take the elevator to get outside.


I used to look at our large, fenced-in backyard as a selling feature. I used to point out to my wife that our backyard was twice as big as the average yard in our neighborhood, and that would be an asset when we sell our house one day.


Now I appreciate my backyard as a safe outdoor space to play with my son.


In a world where working from home is a privilege, living in a detached house is also a privilege.


2020 has been difficult for everyone, just not equally difficult

Even as someone who enjoyed a tremendous amount of privilege, 2020 has been hard.


For one, my father passed away in February. I live 1,800 kilometers away from my hometown. It has been hard that we were not able to have any type of service. It has been even more difficult that I have not been able to travel home and be with my mom right now.


Being confined for an extended period can take a mental toll on anyone, even if you live in a beautiful house with a backyard. Add in the fact that we have been confined with a newborn baby, and you can imagine that my wife and I have had a few stressful days.


We’re living through a global pandemic. Everyone is having a hard time. It’s okay and perfectly normal to feel frustrated.


With privilege comes responsibility

If you can work from home, take a moment, and appreciate what a privilege that is.

  • You are still getting a paycheck when millions of people are not.

  • You don’t have to make a choice between receiving that paycheck and potentially exposing yourself to COVID-19.


Being able to ride out the pandemic in a large, comfortable, and private home is also a privilege.


As someone with a lot of privilege in 2020, I’ve been thinking about what responsibilities that privilege comes with during this pandemic.


  • Stay home and don’t abuse your privilege. If you can work from home, appreciate what a gift that is. Don’t waste that gift by making unnecessary trips in public.

  • Check-in with your family, friends, and co-workers. See how they are holding up. Encourage them to maintain social distancing and ask how you might be able to help them through this challenging period.

  • Keep giving or start giving to your favorite charities. During times of economic recession, charities struggle with funding. If you have been able to maintain your income, please keep giving to charity. They need your help now more than ever.

  • Consider giving blood. I give blood as often as possible. However, I will admit I have been scared to give blood since COVID-19 arrived in North America. According to the Red Cross, it is still safe to give blood. I haven’t yet, but I plan on getting the courage to go give blood soon. It’s the easiest way to save a life.

  • Support local businesses. Small businesses, particularly those in the service sector, have been the hardest hit by the social distancing measures. If you are still working, consider buying anything you can from businesses in your community. If your favorite local restaurant offers gift cards, considering buying some. It gives the restaurant cash at a time they need it, and you will have something to look forward to when this is over.


This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone. For those who have health concerns or have lost their job, it is especially difficult.


If you are in a privileged position during this pandemic, rather than focusing on the difficulties, try, if possible, to focus on how you can use that privilege to make a positive impact.


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