From government briefings to messages being broadcast in supermarkets, one thing is clear, in the COVID-19 pandemic; we’re all in this together. Except we aren’t. Levels of inequality in the UK are acute and unprecedented in the modern era; as Danny Dorling has stated, “you need to go back to Downton Abbey times” (RSA 2014 8 min 23) to see comparable levels of inequality. As government imposed austerity has ground on, what has become abundantly clear is that this inequality has a classed dimension. It may sound obvious to anyone reading this blog that class is an element of inequality but it is important to re-iterate; class and class positionality matter like never before. Class constrains and restrains your life experience, and, now, increasingly, because of the pandemic, class constrains your life expectancy.
Let us consider this in this the context of space and how it is negotiated. Public transport is the subject of much discussion at the present time. In light of the government’s message for people to return to work there has been, quite rightly, considerable debate about the safety of workers using transport to travel to and from workplaces. Is it safe to use? How do we mitigate the risk? All of these are unanswered questions. Yet what about those members of the population who are in receipt of support from social workers? What we know about public transport is that many of our service users are dependent on public transport. In contemporary Britain economic capital dictates this dependence. The way in which people relate to space is relative (Harvey, 2019). How the person negotiates the space where they live, depends on their age, race, class and gender. We know that women, young people and those on a low income, in particular, are reliant on public transport. People who are already experiencing significant levels of inequality now face greater inequality from COVID-19 when they travel. Put another way, a service user who is required to cross the city to a vital appointment may only have one option of doing so and that option now contains significant risk.
Yet is this risk not applicable to all? Are we not all in this together? Theories of uneven geographical development are instructive here. Many parts of our country are poorly served, or are inaccessible, by public transport. Services are not ‘joined up’ or are non-existent. Yet this discrepancy is not equitable, capitalism dictates that ‘public transport’ runs where it is profitable to do so. Consequently, many in our society, whether in town or country, who are completely reliant on public transport, that often, is not fit for purpose, are disadvantaged. Factor in a deadly pandemic to the only way that many in our communities have of travelling, and this disadvantage is multiplied exponentially.
To consider this from a Bourdieusian perspective, social, cultural and economic capital and how they impact on our life experience, matter, with relation to this spatial negotiation. I will wager no politicians (those who are quick to point out that we are all in this together) or many from the middle and upper classes are in the position where they are reliant on public transport in quite the same way. Their relative levels of capital provide them with choices that are unavailable to others.
One thing seems clear, that at the present time; public transport does not seem to be used in a safe way and this is fundamentally inequitable for many of those who are in receipt of services. Once again we see ‘structural violence’ (Galtung, 1969:171) being experienced by virtue of your class positionality. Put simply, if you are working class, a woman, from a BME community, you are clearly at risk from COVID -19 in your reliance on public transport. Your life expectancy is at risk in a very real and immediate way.
There is considerable debate at present at how city spaces may be restructured in light of the pandemic. Harvey (2012) writes of the connection between developing new cities that are in line with ideas of social justice. With this in mind, we need to ensure that these discussions acknowledge the lived reality of many of the people who inhabit our cities (or any of the different parts of our country) to ensure the structural violence that ordinary working people are experiencing in the pandemic is not replicated. Discussions are taking place about the role of cycling and walking in the new look cities. This could be a welcome development but once again, we are not all in this together. People with disabilities, families with young families are excluded potentially, by such solutions and this exclusion must be recognised and addressed. Those making decisions about what this new world will look like need to ensure they are not perpetrating class based inequality and contributing to further state violence themselves.
In the aftermath of the pandemic there is clearly a world to win, but in order to win this world we have to recognise the fundamental levels of class based inequality people are already experiencing in the UK. Let those of us committed to social justice use this opportunity to tear down the barriers that class inflicts. Our failure to do so will only result in this inequality being perpetuated long after COVID-19 has come under control.
Alex Withers – Lecturer Dept of Social Care and Social Work Manchester Metropolitan University
The RSA (2014) Danny Dorling on Inequality and the 1 Percent [online video] [Accessed on 14 May 2020] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3kjvqxktKQ
Galtung, J (1969) Violence, Peace and Peace research Journal of Peace Research Vol. 6, No. 3 , pp. 167-191
Harvey, D (2012) Rebel Cities: The Right To The City To The Urban Revolution, London : Verso
Harvey D (2019) Spaces of Global Capitalism A Theory Of Uneven Geographical Development, London : Verso