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In Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’, Premonitions of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’, Premonitions of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Park family in a still from Parasite (2019).

Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite is a narrative on rampant global capitalism, exploitive meritocracy and deep-seated social stratifications in our societies. It flirts with the possibility that class aspirants can one day climb out of a basement existence and rise into fresh air and sunshine.

In Parasite, the vertically disparate worlds of the elite – the Park family – and the proletarians – the Kim family – try to coalesce briefly, but end up colliding. The brief, symbiotic liaison between the rich and poor dissolves symbolically as heavy rain floods the Kims’ basement home – but creates an opportunity for frolic for the Parks, who live closer to the skies.

Parasite is an essential watch for all people, but especially health-policy makers, politicians and bureaucrats. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven an irreparable wedge into the social fabric of most nations, bringing those whose lives and livelihoods have been decimated by the disease into the spotlight. Its health and socio-economic consequences have precipitated a disaster that will haunt us for years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been typified by social injustices, hypocrisy, racism, elitism and the incompetence of government advisors worldwide. The sudden lockdown last year was also exceptionally harsh on the poor, and they are no better off this year.

Like in Parasite, the elite and the non-elite experience the pandemic differently. Just like the fumigation fog in Parasite underscored the way the lives of those living in poverty is suffused with misery even as it serves to protect the elite, the lockdown was a relief to those who saw themselves spared from having to commute to work. And while they stayed safe in their gated communities, the poor couldn’t even buy and use PPE (including masks), nor work for their wages and afford food.

The public health guidelines that authorities released in many countries also assumed that their populations had both a home and social safety nets. This was simply not the case across the world’s major continents. In poor countries, at least half – but often more – of all jobs are informal, with people often leading a hand-to-mouth existence with limited or no access to clean water and basic sanitation. Even the oft-prescribed norms of physical distancing and regular hand-washing were, and are, an untenable option for millions.

We also know that more than 1.5 billion people around the world have no place to call home. Some 272 million are international migrants and another 760 million have migrated within their countries.

So unlike the elite, the poor are highly under-equipped to survive nationwide lockdown orders. In fact, the lockdowns in 2020 across the world stripped them of the one thing they have typically been able to hold on to: dignity through work.

The brief moments of coexistence between the elites and the poor – in terms of promises to beat the pandemic together – soon crumpled as COVID-19 outbreaks hit hard in 2020 and harder in 2021. Governments exhorted all people of all strata to fight as one, but there was a pretense, mediated partly by the countries’ inability to deal with a disease that was spread by an equal opportunity virus in a world of inequity.

In Parasite, Mr Park often conversed with Mr Kim but had no intention to make a genuine connection. The appearances of Kims’ loyalties as housekeeper, driver and tutor were a pretense and mirrored the mentality of the Parks, who never liked their housekeeping staff ‘crossing the line’. This same line divides the elite and the poor in most countries.

Once governments announced lockdowns in 2020, the elite turned self-indulgent. On the other hand, financial crises assailed the homeless, the penniless and the suddenly unemployed daily-wage workers.

This said, health inequities and failed healthcare infrastructure hit all people nearly equally especially in 2021, when nations with deficient pandemic management were confronted by worse COVID-19 outbreaks.

Health inequalities are not unavoidable but are exacerbated by socioeconomic disparities. In a pandemic, these disparities typify the impact of wealth. As epidemiologist Michael Marmot put it: “When a society is flourishing, health tends to flourish.”


Since 2020, COVID-19 has shattered any semblance of parity in the socioeconomic affairs of the world’s people. Even the more robust economies of some European countries could ill-afford the lockdowns’ economic consequences.

In fact, despite the lockdown declarations, it’s evident that the politico-bureaucratic frameworks in the top ten countries most affected by COVID-19 (in terms of the case load) have largely failed to protect the weak during the pandemic. The stark differences between haves and have-nots have been exacerbated by existing class and racial differences. A disproportionate burden of disease and death assailed the ethnic and racial minorities.

Epidemics are intensified by poverty and inequality because these factors increase the rates of transmission and mortality. During the current pandemic, COVAX alliance was designed to reduce the risk of “vaccine nationalism”. It was implemented in two parts: providing countries with vaccine doses in equal proportion to cover 20% of their population, and ensuring countries received vaccine doses proportional to their needs. However, more than a hundred countries have yet to receive a single dose.

The COVID-19 pandemic and Parasite reflect each other because both their narratives are founded on similar societal fissures. COVID-19 has reminded us that socio-economic-health equity is an essential feature of any civilised and evolved state. Until the vertical and horizontal distances between the haves and the have-nots are shrunk, the have-nots will remain vulnerable to being exploited by parasitic economic systems, politico-bureaucratic selfishness and ingrained class-racial divisions.

Jyoti Sharma and Amit Chhibber are concerned about inequities in the global public healthcare systems.

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