Lessons on how the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequality
Written by Isabelle Thompson
Public Health England published a report in August 2020 exploring the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on inequality in England. The primary argument shows how COVID-19 has not only emphasised the inequalities facing Britain today, but has exacerbated such inequalities. The economic damage caused by the current pandemic reveals how urgent national and even global intervention is needed; the government can no longer ignore the situation.
The report evidences the extent to which COVID-19 has unevenly affected certain groups of people who have already suffered the consequences of inequality in the UK. These groups include low-income households and ethnic minority groups, specifically those born outside of the UK and Ireland, and those in caring occupations were more likely to contract COVID-19. In particular, Black and Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups have experienced higher death rates, despite making up a smaller proportion of the UK than white ethnic groups.
A report by The King’s Fund discussed how a large proportion of essential workers, such as NHS staff, transport workers and cleaners are ethnic minorities. Consequently, BAME people are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, partially explaining why their death rates are significantly higher than white staff in the same occupations.
However, it is not just specific ethnicities being affected, but whole areas of Britain; London and the North of England had a higher case and death rate, while the South of England had the lowest. The North of England has continuously received less funding from Parliament than the South, often resulting in health disparities. Typically, the North of England has greater rates of poverty than the South, and often those living in poverty experience more occurrences of overcrowded housing, general housing issues and inter-generational households. This causes an ideal breeding ground for illnesses, likely accounting for many of the differences in case and death rates of COVID-19 between communities.
Despite government authorities having known that these groups have worse outcomes, few steps have been taken to address these inequalities and improve people’s health. Has it taken a global pandemic to bring these stark inequalities to the government’s attention? The varying impact of COVID-19 has revealed the structural and systematic barriers BAME groups and low-income groups face daily – not just during this pandemic. The constant negative media rhetoric towards places suffering from deprivation goes hand in hand with the lack of government policy initiatives to tackle inequality. Once a place becomes viewed negatively, it justifies policy makers to further marginalise communities. Although people have no choice but to live in the places they do, they are regularly blamed for their own demise when arguably they are the product of society’s own making.
It is important to recognise how the pandemic is not just causing harm through deaths and financial insecurity, but there are also indirect and hidden consequences because of the measures put in place to contain the virus. One of the most notable consequences is the increasing cases of domestic violence against women, which is often not the first thought when considering the impact of COVID-19. An investigation carried out by the BBC’s Panorama in August showed how during lockdown abuse against women was intensified It highlighted their plight as many women were trapped indoors with their abusive partners or family members, often unable to seek help. As discussions of a ‘second wave’ and another lockdown are occurring, it is important that our government tries harder to prevent such crimes from occurring a second time around.
As the pandemic has continued, it has been easy for people to forget that real people are dying and are being affected. The white and the wealthy have been let off lightly by the pandemic compared to low-income households, the BAME population, and women; this should not be ignored. When another global issue occurs, the same groups will suffer the consequences harder than the rest of us, and it is vital our society tries to rectify these inequalities. Real people are being affected by COVID-19 and it is important we remember that just because many of us have not personally known someone who has died from it, the cries for help from those most vulnerable have largely been overlooked.
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