2020 has undoubtedly been arduous. Social interaction has become virtual, lockdowns continue to isolate people from friends and family, and we have all been forced to aclimatise to a new way of living. As we move into 2021 and the pandemic endures, it is important to acknoweldge how the events of the past year have placed a disproportionate strain on the lives of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable. As Owen Jones recently noted, ‘coronavirus is not some great leveller, it is exacerbating inequality right now’. In recongising this, our editors have considered some key areas in which the burden of the pandemic is being felt asymmetrically.
Unemployment – Rebecca Pugh
This year has been dominated by the Covid-19 global pandemic, resulting in unprecedented shocks to the world economy. Businesses have experienced dramatic, uncontrollable changes in the levels of demand, compounded by vague distinctions surrounding what constitutes essential or non-essential goods, forcing many to close across two national lockdowns and subsequent Tier 4 restrictions. Moreover, as restrictions have eased, they have had to adapt, introducing more onerous safety guidelines.
3.6 million (1/9 workers) in the United Kingdom were in insecure work prior to the pandemic, leaaving many vulnerable to potentially large changes in working hours and income, if they are able to retain their job at all. The government has issued guidance on responsible behaviour when enforcing contracts, asking businesses to consider this as part of the national response. Despite this, current figures suggest 730,000 UK workers have been removed from the payrolls of British companies since March of this year, whilst the number of workers on zero-hour contracts has increased.
We have also seen that the impact of coronavirus has not been felt equally across the UK. The major drivers of these differences in regional economic performance result from local variation in sectoral structures, where those with greater dependence on tourism, greater reliance on international trade and supply chains, or even areas with poorer access to high-speed internet connectivity have experienced more adverse effects. All these factors and more will have a part to play. The only thing we can change is how we respond to this crisis through closer public scrutiny of government action and encouraging change through our own spending habits where possible.
Impact of Covid-19 on Women’s Work Inequality – Zoey Cama
Due to pre-existing inequalities, there is no doubt that women are bearing the brunt of Covid-19 in economies of every size. The rapid spread of the virus placed essential workers at the frontline of exposure. According to reports by the UN Women’s Policy and Programme Division, globally, 70 per cent of health workers are women. Yet, the gender pay gap in the health sector is at a staggering 28 per cent. During the UK’s lockdown, many essential workers were not eligible for furlough and were made to work without much-needed protections. As such, they have been faced with the option of high exposure or the risk of unemployment during a financially burdensome time. For example, it is estimated that 72 per cent of domestic workers have lost their jobs, with women making up 80 per cent of the labour force globally.
Women also make up the majority of single-parent households and many had to leave their jobs when children were sent home from school in March. With the inability to afford childcare, mothers are now facing the hurdle of providing for their families. Even before Covid-19, women spent an average of 4.1 hours per day performing unpaid work, while men spend 1.7 hours.
McKinsey & Company’s report suggests that if governments do not act to address this gender-parity regression, global GDP would be left $1 trillion below where it would be if the coronavirus had affected both sexes equally. Perhaps these statistics will incentivise governments to act redress these social and economic vulnerabilities.
NHS resource allocation – Ella Kennedy
The influx of demand for medical attention caused by the spread of Covid-19 across the UK has stretched our National Health Service to its limits. In the last week, healthcare professionals in London have made clear that the NHS is at breaking point, with patients being sent around the country to available beds. Resources have been redirected towards fighting the virus, impacting those with non-Covid health issues. For example, many NHS patients have had important treatments delayed to free up hospital beds, and A&E services have been significantly reduced. The day-to-day operations the NHS was conducting before the pandemic have been entirely impacted.
Some private hospitals have offered their facilities to NHS patients to help cope with demand, indicating that they have sufficient space to treat all their patients. In addition, due to their size and resources, there is a lower risk of contracting Covid within private hospitals than public hospitals. Evidently, those who can pay can receive treatment during this time in a safe environment.
The NHS has struggled to operate with inadequate government funding for many years, and the situation has been significantly worsened by Covid. Without increased government support, the NHS is vulnerable to collapsing into a US-style private healthcare system which excludes the poor from protection altogether.
The Hypocrisy of Dominic Cummings and the Current Administration – Miranda Daniel
Since the story broke in May, it has been near impossible to avoid the jokes and memes made about Dominic Cummings’ drive to Durham and eye-testing trip to Barnard Castle. Whilst such mockery is undoubtedly humorous, it is important to remember the harsh reality that the scandal has exposed. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted a reality within our society in that there is often one rule for the rich and powerful and another for the majority. Despite clearly breaking the law, Cummings was not forced to resign, instead stepping down from his £140k-a-year role in November following an unrelated, comparatively trivial, internal dispute. In contrast, the police fined at least two people who made the same journey from London to Durham. Fines are an intrinsically elitist means of punishment, as they only deter those who do not have the means to pay if caught, whilst those with excess wealth are free to disregard the law provided they can cover the cost. It was therefore particularly galling and hypocritical to see Cummings push for tougher fines for breaches of coronavirus restrictions in October. There is, however, perhaps a silver-lining emanating from this saga, as the UK public has become more aware of the law’s preferential treatment of elite actors and the self-preservationist nature of the current Conservative government.
BAME Inequalities – Imogen Watkins, Jing Wern Tan and Yen Ning Tay
Multiple studies since the first peak of the Covid-19 pandemic have indicated that individuals from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME) have been disproportionately affected by the virus, with black people being four times more likely to die from Covid.
ONS figures suggest this is a result of BAME members of society disproportionately occupying frontline work such as such in social care and the gig-economy, where they are more directly exposed to the virus. Due to the physical nature of this work, these individuals are unable to work from the safety of their homes, instead faced with the choice of leaving their job and losing an invaluable source of income, or continuing employment, at risk of contracting the virus.
Indeed, the pandemic has exposed the effects of more deeply-rooted inequalities, as there has been a disproportionate number of BAME individuals die from the disease. BAME individuals are more likely to be found living in densely packed communities, meaning the virus can spread at an accelerated rate. Furthermore, the long-term effects of austerity and poverty mean the prevalence of comorbidities such as obesity, asthma and cardiovascular disease are more significant in BAME communities – pre-existing conditions that have been found to reduce Covid survival chances. It is the effects of social issues, rather than mere biology, which has contributed to the disproportionate deaths of BAME individuals.
The Conservative government has long-betrayed and marginalised BAME communities, playing a key role in creating the inequalities that have ultimately led to hundreds of unnecessary deaths. Whilst Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’ initiative is welcomed, as it purports to more widely uplift society, there is little to suggest that this will materially differ from previous Conservative neglect of BAME communities.