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1st Edition April 9th, 2020 Ross Gibson

Unequal lives, unequal deaths

Whilst politicians have been eager to call for national unity, the past few weeks have highlighted the vast disparities that exist throughout the United Kingdom. Despite attempts to suggest that we are all facing the same challenges and difficulties, reality tells us that some sections of society experience the effects of Covid-19 in a profoundly different way from others.   Not only does this result in additional stress and pressure – and increased mortality – for those in the most disadvantaged groups, but is a stark demonstration of the inequalities that are woven into the fabric of our society, and a time when existing support networks of family, friends and the state have been cut suddenly.

Examples of these inequalities are manifest, touching on pretty much every aspect of life.

Although recent steps taken by the Treasury have included levels of financial support that was unimaginable in mid-March, millions of Britons are now facing months – perhaps years – of uncertainty to yet further compound a lost decade caused through the impact of austerity.  One feature of that decade being the exponential growth of zero hour contracts.  Workers on such contracts are left without the protection afforded their colleagues in more permanent, stable employment and now face the unenviable task of enrolling on Universal Credit.  Whilst newly introduced financial supports have been welcomed, there are several gaps in provision which will further enhance chasms between those in stable employment, and those in precarious, fragile employment. I wonder how parents manage to keep their children occupied, entertained and educated – if that is at all possible – when there has been pressure from unscrupulous employers to keep shops open, when people are losing their jobs, and when utility bills will be increasing day by day. 

A family of four living in their own home, replete with a garden, broadband and satellite television will experience this period in a completely different way from a family in privately rented accommodation, living on the fourth floor of a block of flats, with a similarly stressed out family next door and without the ‘luxuries’ previously outlined.  So whilst our first family are afforded additional space, a garden and home entertainment – things that are by no means opulent – the second face a pressure cooker environment where minor irritations are magnified, and where financial worries influence every decision.  The loss of school meals further compounds these difficulties.

It’s easy to say stay at home.  It easy to tell others to stay at home. But when your house is cramped and overcrowded, when you experience fuel poverty, when your kids want to breathe fresh air and when you need space from the inevitable chaos that ensues, it isn’t as easy as that.  Furthermore, in many cases staying at home is the very thing that places them in a perilous position, with domestic abuse, sexual exploitation and neglect.  The human and social capital available to each individual widely varies, leaving some more at risk than others.

Whilst I am not questioning the medical guidelines of staying at home in order to minimise infection, I am mindful of the unintended consequences of driving people to remain within the confines of their home.  I fear that child protection concerns will go unnoticed and unreported, and when this is over there will be a slow realisation of the long term impact that this period of lockdown will have upon children’s wellbeing.  I fear that people experiencing addiction will face unimaginable withdrawal, or feel that they must risk their health further by seeking out solace through substances, and I worry that instances of domestic abuse will increase, but go undetected.  

In education, students of all ages have been expected to move seamlessly from classroom settings to online learning.  This must have been a challenge for everyone, but can you imagine the difficulty for those who not have an up to date device, if one at all?  Or what of those who have no internet access, or those who have limited data allowances?  Or those students who experience additional learning needs?  The haste with which this shift has been made underlines the lack of consideration that is often paid to the less financially stable sections of our society.

Of course, the situation is – as always – more difficult for those living in the developing world, as Kenan Malik has pointed out, and is a reminder of how privileged life in the United Kingdom truly is.  The international response to this crisis will need substantial financial investment from those with the broadest shoulders.  Nevertheless, on these shores those who experience the greatest levels on inequality – the ones who already carry additional burdens – will be the ones who experience the impending hardships most acutely.  But perhaps the aftermath of Covid19 will change things.

Just as Karyn McCluskey has written of her hopes for greater empathy and connection towards prisoners as a result of this pandemic, perhaps this period will lead to greater public and political will to address the vast, insidious inequalities which have been brought to light.  Whilst I am loathe to make comparisons between this pandemic and the 2nd world war, the political direction that the United Kingdom took in its immediate aftermath is something that we ought to aspire to.  Then, despite astronomical debt and a shattered and fatigued population, we were able to take steps that led to; the creation of the NHS, provision of social housing, the repeal of the Poor Law, the introduction of National Insurance, electoral reform, and greater public access to greenspace.  Endeavours of a similar vein to these could have significant benefits when this pandemic is over.  To attain that end, recent adoption of welfare minded policies must not be cast aside, nor must we allow them to be. We ought not ‘do our bit’ over the coming months and years (just as we have since the financial crash of 2008) only to return to the status quo which has did little to serve the wellbeing, welfare and interests of the most disadvantaged groups in society. 

Ross Gibson, Social worker, practice teacher and PhD student.