Home > Past and Present > Slavery and COVID-19

By Robert E. Wright, Paul Coverdell Distinguished Visiting Fellow of Policy Studies, Georgia College, Fall 2020

Dr. Robert Wright

The pandemic’s direct toll on the world’s 40 million or so modern slaves will never be known with certainty but will be disproportionately heavy. Slaves are the poorest of the poor and usually forced to work and live in cramped conditions. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is undoubtedly transmitted at high frequency during sex, even “protected” sex, which obviously is not social distancing best practice. Most who succumb to the disease will die untreated and uncounted. The only saving grace, if you can call it that, is that most modern slaves are relatively young and hence less likely to experience severe complications due to the virus. On the other hand, most will confront the disease overworked and malnourished, with a viral load well beyond their years.

The bigger death toll will come indirectly, from enslaver neglect or outright murder. Modern slaves, recall, are “disposable people” in Kevin Bales’s unforgettable phrase. If farmers across America are dumping unmarketable milk and eggs, it is highly likely that enslavers are not keen on keeping their slaves and that murder is more likely than manumission given that slavery is illegal almost everywhere. Unemployment is an inconvenience, often a mighty one, in rich countries. In poor countries it is life-threatening. For the enslaved, it will often prove a death sentence.

Unfortunately, most of us remained hunkered down, unable to help except maybe with a donation to an antislavery NGO like Historians Against Slavery. Emails and even phone calls to public officials are unlikely to be heeded. To verify that, I sent an urgent email to Dusty Johnson, South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, about disruptions to the food supply chain on Monday, 6 April, before it was common knowledge. He responded on Wednesday, 15 April, with a pathetic form letter. I sat in on one of his conference calls but after what seemed an eternity had not reached the front of the queue. I relate this by way of evidence, not censure.

I hate to say it but those already enslaved may be unreachable under current conditions. We should focus instead on those not yet enslaved but who will be vulnerable to enslavement when the pandemic finally ends. Desperate for profits and low on slaves, enslavers then will be looking for new disposable people to buy. And because the COVID-19 pandemic will be, even under the worst-case scenario, far less of a labor supply shock than the Black Death, we cannot even look forward to significantly higher prices for slaves or higher real wages for workers. In fact, severe economic dislocations worldwide mean that slave prices may even drop as a billion or more of the world’s poor are pushed to the brink.

But even in the next phase of this massive humanitarian crisis, our hands will be largely tied because humanity has managed to eschew slavery without embracing freedom. And we, the intelligentsia, are largely to blame as we spend our hours filling “lacunae” in “scholarly debates” that never end instead of actually trying to fix our world, the deep fractures in which the pandemic painfully illuminates, but did not cause.

When shopping The Poverty of Slavery: How Unfree Labor Pollutes the Economy (Palgrave 2017), I received reader reports that complained bitterly that the manuscript did not “engage with the scholarly debate about slavery and capitalism.” Exactly, because that debate is largely a vacuous one with little relevance to the real world, the world where real people remain vulnerable to enslavement because they had the misfortune to be born in poor regions of the world, places that would be substantially better off if businesses and governments did not collude to extract resources from the bulk of the populace.

That’s right, Left and Right are both wrong. Businesses or governments alone cannot keep people down because they effectively check each other’s excesses. But once businesses and governments collude, poverty is inevitable, and of course poverty is the leading cause of slavery. There are more of us “in the weeds” trying to sort this all out than there was just a decade ago but think of the progress we could make if Progressives stopped assuming government solves all problems and businesspeople are greedy gougers and if Conservatives stopped assuming business is a panacea and government evil incarnate.

The simple fact is, the real world is a big, diverse, complicated place, and right now it is not just winning, it is trouncing us. We all suffer, but the world’s slaves are paying the biggest price of all.

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