We’re Not in This Together: Covid-19 and the Poverty Crisis

By Orla Emberson

At the crux of coronavirus messaging in the UK, as well as the rest of the world, is the sense of universality – that is, all of us are affected by the havoc wreaked by this deadly virus. Any one of us is susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or experiencing a loss of a loved one, thus we are all in this together. However, this messaging perpetuates a myth which claims the degree of disruption to our lives is largely equal across the board, and that the effect and reach of this illness is independent of socio-economic factors. The data tells a different story, and begs the question: why haven’t government initiatives recognised the struggles faced by the working class as one of the most urgent issues facing the country?

Throughout spring, the country was united in their resolve to “clap for carers” every Thursday night, in a display of appreciation of the frontline workers who risked their lives and isolated from their families so that we were able to see ours. Is it not strange that we haven’t seen the same passion in protesting the fact that at the same time, half of frontline care workers were being paid less than the living wage? When we were all told to work from home in March in order to reduce transmission risk of the virus, 53% of workers in ABC1 households (upper to lower middle class households) worked from home full-time. This figure was just 22% in C2DE households (working class households). In fact, four in ten workers from C2DE homes admitted they weren’t working from home at all, and therefore exposing themselves to risk of the virus outside their homes on a regular basis. Additionally, whilst 88% of Britons were able to survive lockdown in accommodation with a garden or balcony, Black people in England were nearly four times as likely as white people to have no access to outdoor space at home. Finally, in May, Boris Johnson ordered that English workers should go into work if they were unable to work from home, but also advised that public transport should be avoided. This may seem possible: as of 2019, 76% of the overall UK population had access to a car. But for those in the lowest real income bracket, almost half did not have access, hence increasing the likelihood that they would have no choice but to risk exposure to the virus via public transport. Given that this was announced on a Sunday night, hours before the labour force would be on the front lines, it showed the lack of acknowledgement for those who could not commute any other way than public transport. 

The differences are stark. Poorer people and people of ethnic minorities seemed to, on average, have a tougher lockdown than the most Britons. Unfortunately, the data also shows that those in these groups were more likely to suffer the consequences of the virus itself. An ONS report undertaken in April revealed that compared with the rate among people of the same sex and age in England and Wales, men working in the lowest skilled occupations had the highest rate of death involving COVID-19. The occupations that were found to have raised rates of death involving coronavirus also tend to be low-paid jobs, including taxi, bus and coach drivers, chefs and retail assistants.

The revelation of the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on BAME was so profound that it prompted the Chief Medical Officer to ask Public Health England to investigate disparities in risk and outcomes of COVID-19”, which confirmed worries of the virus replicating, and in some cases, exacerbating existing health inequalities.  While a whole new article could be written on the racial factors of health inequalities, the intersection between class and race in Britain should be noted here. In the aforementioned report, discussions with stakeholders revealed a commonly held view that COVID-19 didn’t create a divide in health equality, but rather exposed and intensified long standing inequalities affecting BAME groups, who tend to have poorer socioeconomic circumstances than their white counterparts. The report found that individuals from BAME groups are more likely to work in occupations with a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure and are more likely to use public transportation. Beyond this, a separate report found that as of 2018, Pakistani or Bangladeshi and Black adults were more likely to live in substandard accommodation than White people, and 30.9% of Pakistani or Bangladeshi people live in overcrowded accommodation, while that figure is 8.3% for white people. Although we are not yet able to determine the causes of the disparities in infection and death rates for BAME individuals, we must be aware of the already existing inequalities in society.

The question that arises is what the government can do to mitigate the economic, social and psychological impact of the virus for the most vulnerable in our society. The furlough scheme was arguably initially a success, limiting the number of jobs lost in the spring and preventing a huge spike in unemployment. The lack of sectorial support has been a major criticism, as a letter from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee pointing out that as of 8th September, 51% of employees in the arts and leisure sector were dependent on furlough, compared with 13% across all industries. Although Rishi Sunak has recently unveiled a new job support scheme, this has been interpreted as leaving business to pay employees for hours that they have not worked, with many arguing that businesses will not be able to afford it under current circumstances. Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has noted that “many jobs will be lost over the current months”, and with 3 million people still on furlough, the only way for struggling businesses to decide which employees are worth keeping will be a meritocratic design, and hence letting employees go if they aren’t deemed as hard-working as others. This will surely hit those forced to work multiple jobs the hardest.

Additionally, those that have to self-isolate and stay off work, are expected to live off £95.85 a week Statutory Sick Pay.For those that are low earners in low-income households but are not eligible for Universal Credit, usually young single people, living on less than £96 a week could mean deciding between prioritising their health and paying their bills. The Trade Union Congress has recognised this, finding that 43% of workers would fall into financial hardship if they had to self-isolate on the current rate of SSP, and has called on the government to increase the rate of SSP to £320 per week.  The current rate could have adverse consequences for public health, as the most vulnerable will struggle to live without their wages – hence, may even risk their own and others’ health by refusing to self-isolate. The experience of other countries indicates that a fair sick pay encourages obedience with isolation, as quarantined workers in Austria are entitled to be paid as normal, and compliance with regulations is 98%. This looks like the gold standard when you compare it to a recent King’s College London survey in the U.K. that found only 18.2% reported remaining at home between March and August after developing symptoms, with many citing work as a major reason for non-compliance. 

Some of the debilitating effects of the government’s coronavirus measures for the working class have already been exposed. There has been unprecedented demand for charity food since lockdown started, with 100,000 people using food banks for the first time between April and June. The chief executive of the Trussell Trust, Emma Revie, has warned that if we don’t take action now, “there will be further catastrophic rises in poverty in the future”. Meanwhile, the government decided to take a different route, introducing the popular “Eat Out to Help Out” initiative, which, despite having significant benefits for the hospitality industry, was not targeted to help those heading towards poverty, who instead desperately need the £20 boost to Universal Credit retained – something which the government doesn’t look likely to commit to.

It took a 22 year old footballer, Marcus Rashford, to take a stand and reveal his personal experiences with food poverty as a child to force the Government to perform it’s trademark U-turn on its previous decision to stop free school meals for children over the summer holidays. As brave as Rashford was to come forward and start a nationwide campaign, he should never have had to. In a country where the pandemic has clearly taken its toll most devastatingly among the most vulnerable in our society, the least we can expect from the government is to have the needs of the most hard-hit on the agenda for economic recovery. In neglecting these groups, the government not only risks high unemployment and rising poverty levels, but also alienating the very people whose votes they “borrowed” from Labour in the 2019 election.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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