Separate and unequal: Life in the age of Coronavirus

We face the very real prospect that life as we knew just a few short weeks-ago will not return. According to some scientists and futurists, the nature of COVID-19 and our failure to get ahead of it, means it will be with us indefinitely. If that is indeed the case, we face a new way of living in prolonged social-distancing. We may also face a world which requires comprehensive electronic surveillance to track cases, contacts and minimize new cases.

Low-income people and people of color will likely not fare well in such a world. If anything, the playing field could tip even more precariously against them. Social science and medical research document that lower income, poor housing quality, and limited access to healthcare equates to increased risk of disease. If technology is enlisted as a mechanism for tracking people to identify and isolate those with active coronavirus or contacts with the infected, the outcome could result in increased levels of discrimination against the poor.

This article in MIT Tech Review explores how that might occur.

“Moreover, unless there are strict rules on how someone’s risk for disease is assessed, governments or companies could choose any criteria—you’re high-risk if you earn less than $50,000 a year, are in a family of more than six people, and live in certain parts of the country, for example. That creates scope for algorithmic bias and hidden discrimination, as happened last year with an algorithm used by US health insurers that turned out to inadvertently favor white people.”

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