Last week I was chatting with a London-based childhood friend, Tony (now an author and entrepreneur), who said he was worried about how Covid-19 was creating "the three Bs" among his acquaintances.
Some had become desperately "bored" after being mostly trapped for six long months in their domestic surroundings. Others were facing "burnout" because they had been toiling insanely hard on open-all-hours digital platforms — sometimes combined with childcare.
Then there were people grappling with a more serious B: "breakdown", sparked by the type of depression and anxiety that can be unleashed by job losses, financial pain, isolation, relationship stress — or a fear that the pandemic has no obvious end.
"There is a fourth B too," I pointed out more optimistically: for some, Covid-19 lockdown has also produced "blessings". They have used this peculiar period to build closer relations with their families, enjoy time in beautiful locations or relish the freedom of doing their jobs without a long commute or the curse of permanent jet lag. Tony agreed that he happened to be in that fourth camp. So, to some degree, am I.
The bitter — ghastly — cruelty of Covid-19 is that it has not just exposed existing inequalities but that it is exacerbating them too, increasing fortune for some and misfortune for others. There are many ways to frame why people are having such different experiences. But I suspect that one concept that deserves a lot more debate revolves around the issue of capital and who possesses it.
This is a topic that burst into public view with a vengeance in 2013 when French economist Thomas Piketty published the best-selling . The book turned him into an academic star and has now been made into a film. (Spoiler: I am interviewed in the latter, along with my FT colleague Rana Foroohar.)
Piketty defines capital as "the sum total of non-human assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market" and argues that "when the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income . . . capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities".
In many ways, this is precisely what has happened in recent months: anybody who holds assets such as equities has seen the value of these increase, because of central banks' super-loose monetary policies. People without assets, by contrast, have probably seen their net wealth shrivel because the recession has crushed wages and jobs.
However, as an earlier French thinker, Pierre Bourdieu, argued in the 1970s, "capital" does not need to be viewed just through the lens of economics. Bourdieu, for example, was fascinated by the peculiarity of cultural capital — such as tastes, skills and qualifications (from an expensive education, say), all symbols of social power that elevate the holder over time.
Then there is "political capital", or the fact that some people accumulate links with channels of power, and "social capital", for those who collect networks of useful contacts and/or a strong base of friends and family. There's "career capital" too.
In practical terms, these different forms of capital tend to augment each other over time. And just as Covid-19 is probably increasing the power of economic capital, it is also rewarding those who have other types as well. People with strong social capital, say, tend to be more resilient in lockdown, since they like the people they are confined with or have such close friendships and family relationships that these ties can be maintained (and even strengthened) virtually. People without this social capital may have struggled.
Similarly, some of those with career capital might have found this augmented in lockdown since their companies needed them more than before. People who are just entering the workforce, without career or intellectual capital, are in a radically different position. So too with emotional capital: data from the UK's Mental Health Foundation shows that anyone who started Covid-19 with pre-existing problems has fared dramatically worse, in mental health terms, than everyone else.
In a hard-hitting report that details the deep variation in mood among different parts of the British population in recent months, the Mental Health Foundation quotes the saying: "We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat." The report says: "[There is] a divergence in people's experience depending on their social and/or economic context in society . . . Differences in the mental health impact will persist and likely increase." Or to put it another way, the key point about capital is that it can provide resilience in an economic, emotional, social and career sense. If you possess it, you started Covid-19 in a dramatically better place than those who do not.
There is no easy way to fix this tragic inequity; Piketty's book (and the new film) make that clear. But it should worry us all. From a narrow economic perspective, rising inequity around our physical situations and mental health during Covid-19 is likely to drag down productivity, as economists such as Nicholas Bloom of Stanford have pointed out. From a political perspective, it is a recipe for corrosive bitterness.
And from a moral perspective, it is simply wrong. So anybody who is lucky enough to have capital today — of whatever sort — should count their blessings, remember those who do not and then ask themselves this: how can I share mine, at least a little?
Written by: Gillian Tett
© Financial Times