Ever Widening Inequality

Matters of The Moment

A much fairer remuneration policy which bridges salary-based inequality instead of widening it will enable swathes of workers to improve their standard of living and to cut loose from the humbling dependence on social housing and other state support social schemes

By Mrinal Roy

Covid-19 has yet again highlighted the extent of inequality in the world. The world has woken up to the painful reality that the management of the sanitary and socio-economic impact of a pandemic is extremely costly. These costs include protective gear for hospital and other frontliners, Covid-19 testing kits, dedicated Covid-19 treatment hospitals including ICU facilities, quarantine centres and all the related medicine and equipment for treatment.

Worker pay via www.shutterstock.com

The costs also include various support measures to economic actors and employees unable to operate because of lockdowns and various confinement measures taken to contain the spread of Covid-19. There is obviously a wide inequality in the quantum of financial resources, doctors, nurses and other health personnel as well as hospital infrastructure available in diverse countries to manage the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is also growing evidence that inequality is also widening in the world because blue-collar jobs although essential in agriculture to produce food, in construction and in the manufacturing sector, etc., tend to be remunerated much less than college and university educated white-collar jobs. The top brass executives are in contrast excessively remunerated. The blue-collar workers are therefore particularly affected by the adverse economic consequences of Covid-19. In 2019 in Mauritius more than 150,000 employees or some 32% of the total workforce earned up to Rs 10,000 whereas some 262,500 employees representing about 56% of the work force earned up to Rs 15,000.

This lopsided remuneration structure and an economic model which thrives on maintaining blue-collar workers on under par salaries to generate profit, reminiscent of a bygone era, cannot be sustainable. In the current Covid-19 pandemic, the blue-collar workers bear some of the brunt of the crisis. Whether they work in agriculture, in the construction industry or in the tourism sector in Covid-19 afflicted countries, they have to report back to work the moment the economy is reignited into activity after lockdowns and other restrictions are lifted as they totally depend on their salaries to meet their existential needs. They are thus particularly exposed to the risk of being infected and have to take every precaution to protect themselves against the virus. It is a catch-22 situation.

A new approach

So many blue-collar jobs are however essential in society. For example, carers to look after people suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia, Parkinson’s disease and other debilitating diseases are of key importance in hospitals, private clinics and homes. An efficient society also needs well-trained and efficient farmers to produce organic and naturally cultivated vegetables and fruits as well as highly educated professionals in every field and research scientists making cutting edge discoveries. In our daily rat race we however hardly think about the workers who pick up our garbage every week.

We must realize that not everyone can be a graduate or aspires to be one. It is therefore high time for a new approach. We need to value and fairly remunerate every profession on its own merits and importance in society as well as change our perception of blue-collar jobs. Society needs a good and efficient mix of professions. Society cannot function efficiently and thrive without agricultural workers, planters, carers, factory workers and garbage collectors etc as well as well-qualified and competent professionals in every field.

It is therefore essential to have a fairer sharing of the fruits of prosperity instead of a skewed one. A much fairer remuneration policy which bridges salary-based inequality instead of widening it will enable swathes of workers to improve their standard of living, be more self-reliant and to cut loose from the humbling dependence on social housing and other state support social schemes.

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Gene Therapy

Will the high costs of gene therapy make it accessible only to the wealthy? Will it be another vector of widening inequality in the world?

The 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded earlier this month jointly to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the path-breaking discovery of CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, a potent tool for genome editing. This remarkable tool enables researchers to change the DNA of humans, animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This innovative technology is a game changer for life sciences. It can help find new pathways for curing inherited diseases.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, winners of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Photo – Financial Times/ The Independent

CRISPRs (pronounced crisper) are a family of DNA sequences found in bacteria, which code for cas (CRISPR associated) proteins. Cas proteins are part of bacteria’s immune response to bacteriophage (viruses which infect bacteria). Cas9 (or “CRISPR-associated”) is one of these proteins which acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA. The ability to modify genes in cells allows researchers to find out more about life’s inner workings. This process used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible to realize. The CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors now enables researchers to alter DNA sequences, modify gene function, correct genetic defects, treat and prevent the spread of diseases.

The story of the discovery of these genetic scissors is quite amazing. Whilst studying Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her research published in 2011 showed that tracrRNA is part of the bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

Genetic scissors

In the wake of the discovery, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna started a research collaboration in 2011. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so that they are easier to use.

In a path-breaking experiment, they then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognize DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Cutting the DNA makes it easy to rewrite the code of life.

The use of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors has exploded since its discovery by Charpentier and Doudna in 2012. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research. Plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway and the hopes of being able to cure inherited diseases are about to come true. The genetic scissors have taken life sciences into a new era of extremely pointed research and discoveries and in many ways are bringing tremendous benefit to mankind.

Ethical issues

A gene is the basic physical and functional unit of heredity. Genes are made up of DNA which is the code of life. The genetic scissors enable defective genes to be repaired. However, apart from representing enormous potential for correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of diseases, in research for new cancer therapies and in improving crops, this cutting edge technology also raises fundamental ethical questions.

As gene therapy involves making changes to the human genome, it raises many fundamental ethical concerns. These concerns beg a number of germane questions. For example, who decides which genes/traits are normal and which constitute a disability or disorder? There is also the question of costs and affordability. Will the high costs of gene therapy make it accessible only to the wealthy? Will it be another vector of widening inequality in the world?

Could the widespread use of gene therapy make society marginalize people who are different? Should people be allowed to use gene therapy to tweak basic human traits to, for example, enhance height, intelligence or athletic ability? CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors are certainly not a tool enabling research centres or society to play god. It is therefore essential that the wide potential of genetic scissors and gene editing be governed by strict ethical rules, robust safeguards and a well-couched legal framework to prevent any misuse.

It must however be flagged in the current Covid-19 afflicted world that whilst CRISPR is a remarkable tool to help cure genetic diseases and develop cancer therapies, it does not help treat infectious diseases such as Covid-19 and malaria.

* Published in print edition on 23 October 2020

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