SINGAPORE – When it arrived in the industrial towns of central Mexico, the sand-swept sprawl of northern Nigeria and the mazes of metal shanties in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, COVID-19 went by another name.
People called it a “rich man’s disease.”
Pandemics throughout history have been associated with the underprivileged, but in many developing countries the coronavirus was a high-class import — carried in by travelers returning from business trips in China, studies in Europe, ski vacations in the Rockies.
With infections initially concentrated in better neighborhoods, many working-class people believed the disease wouldn’t touch them. The governor of Mexico’s Puebla state, Luis Miguel Barbosa, said: “If you’re rich, you’re at risk. … The poor, we’re immune.”
By now it is clear that COVID-19 disproportionately harms the hungry and those with pre-existing illnesses and substandard health care.
Historians say it may be remembered as the first pandemic that spread, to a significant extent, from the affluent to the lowly. It hopscotched around the world aboard commercial and private jets, quickly appearing in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the U.S.
In Mexico, some of the earliest cases were detected in prominent business leaders who had traveled in private jets to Vail, Colo., for a ski vacation. They included a top banking official, the chief executive of the company that makes Jose Cuervo tequila and the chairman of Mexico’s stock exchange, Jaime Ruiz Sacristan, who died from the virus in mid-April.
Stories of callous behavior by elites have spread with the virus. A Bollywood singer refused to self-isolate upon returning from London, then attended three parties, forcing hundreds of families to go into quarantine. The daughter of a politician in Malaysia flouted a lockdown but got off with a $184 fine.
In March and April, South Korea saw a new wave of infections among privileged offspring returning from universities abroad. One student who had a fever reportedly swallowed 20 acetaminophen pills to evade detection by airport temperature scans; another broke quarantine multiple times to go to Starbucks in Seoul.
In Nigeria — where two in five survive on $1 a day or less — some of the first 19 patients were political figures, including the president’s chief of staff, Abba Kyari. Some were believed to have been infected while traveling in Europe or Egypt. Kingsley Ndoh, an assistant professor of global health at the University of Washington, said, “It was seen as a ‘big man’s disease,’ so there was this low risk perception. And then community spread started taking root.”
After Kyari died of the illness, Nigeria’s health minister said the virus was no longer just “something for big men and women.” But the message was undermined when hundreds violated social distancing policies to attend Kyari’s funeral — many not wearing masks.