Beyond the pandemic: inequality as lens

20200501 Post Event Notes / Saturday, May 2nd, 2020


How the concepts of differentiated deservedness and neoliberal morality may help us understand Singapore’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Further reflections on the social science roundtable organised by Academia.SG on 1 May 2020.

As a sociologist who studies inequality, I have tried to emphasize two things that sound contradictory: on one hand, income and wealth differences mean that people have very different opportunities, unequal choices, and uneven capacities to meet needs. Yet, at the same time, inequality isn’t just bad for people who have low income, but also bad for society as a whole, including those who are higher income. 

The ongoing crisis has made it clearer that both things are indeed true: it has never been clearer that our overall health as a society is dependent on a lot more than the actions or wellbeing of any single individual, that everyone is affected when some members of our society are at higher risk for poor health. And yet, although this crisis obviously affects everybody, it is also clear its impact is very different for different segments of our population.  

In the past months, in Singapore and across the world, it has become obvious that this disease—although potentially affecting all bodies regardless of wealth—has very different consequences on people across socioeconomic lines. There is the obvious divide between people in white-collar professions who are able to quickly shift to working at home and people in blue-collar jobs that require continued physical presence outside the home. We see variations in job security surfacing almost overnight—people in part-time work and the gig economy have seen immediate drops in daily, weekly, and monthly incomes. People who have always lived quite precarious lives are now having greater difficulties meeting basic needs. 

We also see very quickly that gender and ethno-national inequalities matter as well. As countries go into lockdown, we see anew the activities that had been taken for granted: shopping, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, caring for the elderly, caring for the disabled—all this revealed as labor, and disproportionately held by women both in families and in the form of underpaid care work. Ethnicity and nationality also matter in various ways—partly because ethnic minorities are disproportionately overrepresented among the lower income, and also because ethnicity and nationality have historically been the basis for prejudice and discriminatory practices that lead to lower access to public goods such as healthcare or education, and to poorer access to wage work. Ethnonationality also differentiates access to the very possibility of making demands and being heard. 

This crisis may affect everybody in society, but people’s experiences of it vary sharply. And the variations map onto the systemic inequalities that we have always had in society—along class, gender, and ethnonational lines. The crisis has amplified vulnerabilities and precarity for those who were always vulnerable and precarious. How these inequalities will play out, we cannot say with certainty now. We will need to understand specifics better through long-term research. But the point of my starting with this is to emphasize that we must maintain inequality as lens in any analysis and discussion of the COVID-19 crisis and our responses to it. 

Social policy reforms

If we don’t act collectively, there will be great hardship ahead, particularly for people who were already struggling—those already living below levels of meeting basic needs and who don’t have savings, who aren’t able to easily transition to different forms of wage work, who aren’t able—for various reasons—to do wage work at all. 

We have to mitigate these negative impacts partly through reforms in our social policy regime.

My work has emphasized two concepts that may be relevant to thinking about this.

The first is that our social welfare regime is characterized by what I call differentiated deservedness.[1] Access to housing, healthcare, education, childcare, is differentiated and people are accorded different levels of deservedness, depending on how they fare in terms of employment, wages, and how they fit into narrow definitions of family.  

The second concept describes the relationships between state and society that I term neoliberal morality.[2] This describes a relationship that is individualistic, thin on mutual obligations, and that compels practices in which people prioritize themselves and their individual families instead of lateral ties with others in society. 

These principles and relationships embedded in our social policy regime have two implications: first, in a situation where employment for some looks likely to become harder, and where income from the employment of those in the middle and bottom are likely to shrink further, if we depend only on market solutions, it will be more difficult than ever for segments of the population to have enough to meet basic needs, and to thrive and flourish as humans. The inability to meet basic needs will have long-range consequences, on long-term health, for example, or on the trajectory of children’s schooling and thus of their long-term prospects. In other words, the logic of differentiated deservedness in the current social policy regime will be increasingly inadequate in meeting needs. 

Second, social policy sets the terms of our engagement in society. Our current regime—with its logic of differentiated deservedness and neoliberal morality—generate for individuals the sense that we must be oriented primarily to ourselves and our families, that we should be ashamed if we don’t have adequate income from wages, that it is right that our access to healthcare or education or childcare varies according to what we can afford. Missing is our sense of mutual obligation, and recognition of the good society can reap when we contribute to the commons. What I’m saying here is that social welfare regimes don’t just have material consequences, but also important symbolic and cultural ones. Reform cannot just be about introducing more schemes or tweaking sums, but must also involve larger reorientations that prioritize collective goals and values. We must pivot away from requiring a narrow version of family, a narrow version of productivity, as conditions for  access to public goods. There has to be a shift away from making financial aid so conditional and narrowly structured that it is shameful to access it. We need to build into our systems a sense of mutual obligations among members of society. 

Through this crisis, we are more aware than ever that we have shared fates. There is an opportunity here for our political elites and our citizenry to recalibrate our collective tools for meeting needs, but they/we have to be willing to take it. 

Mitigating the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis should be about building greater sustainability, knowing this is unlikely to be the last pandemic, knowing that business as usual has meant the wealth of societies has been poorly distributed, knowing that inequality has negative consequences for everybody. 


1. See Teo, Youyenn. 2015. “Differentiated Deservedness: Governance through Familialist Social Policies in Singapore.”  TRaNS: Trans -Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia 3 (1):73-93 or Teo, You Yenn. 2018. This is What Inequality Looks Like. Singapore: Ethos Books.

2. See Teo, Youyenn. 2011. Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society. London and New York: Routledge.

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