Who Is the Parasite?—COVID-19 and Structural Narratives of Health Inequity | Humanities | JAMA | JAMA Network
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The Arts and Medicine
December 21, 2020

Who Is the Parasite?—COVID-19 and Structural Narratives of Health Inequity

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Emergency Medicine, Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York
JAMA. Published online December 21, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.21450

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate systemic inequities drawn along racial and socioeconomic lines,1 we may turn to the arts as a means of escape—or as a point of entry. Parasite, the 2019 social thriller from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho and winner of Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards, provides a unique study of class-based inequities, viewing wealth and poverty through a topographical lens.

The film portrays the slow-motion collision between the destitute Kims, who at the film’s start reside in a Seoul semi-basement under harsh fluorescent lighting, and the affluent Park family, who live in a hilltop mansion with open access to sun and sky. We witness the Kims’ attempts at upward movement, in an early scene by reaching toward the ceiling in search of a public Wi-Fi connection, then by strategically—and mostly underhandedly—supplanting the Parks’ entire household staff to gain access to their resources and elevated status. Bong referred during production to Parasite as his “staircase movie” and indeed, staircases are a central motif, representing the bidirectional freedom of upper class mobility while constraining the lower class to perpetual descent. Not only do the working classes have further to climb; they must start at the proverbial bottom each day.

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