The devastating number of care home deaths, which were overlooked until this week, is yet another way that coronavirus further heightens social issues in the UK.
A pandemic has always been the biggest threat to our nation. Why weren’t we prepared for it? Over 26,000 people in the UK have died from Covid-19. We are living in an ongoing and uncertain lockdown. The NHS has hit crisis point and frontliners are working without proper PPE. And that’s just the glaringly obvious side of things. We also want to know why, in 2020, we still live in a society so deeply out of balance that the situation is affecting certain groups of people to such a devastating extent.
Despite the government’s – and some media outlets’ – claims that coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, it very plainly does. It’s true that anyone can get coronavirus, anyone can spread it and anyone can die because of it. Just look at the overwhelming response to prime minister Boris Johnson getting the virus, after months of neglecting its existence. The term ‘social leveller’ was thrown around more than ever during his time in intensive care. But the fact is, certain groups of underprivileged people are more at risk of suffering the effects of a pandemic.
The latest figures to devastate the public have been the sharp rise in care home deaths, which account for nearly a third of all Covid-19 deaths. The government has only just started to include these numbers when reporting on the total deaths. People are being critical of the way the government seems to have, yet again, overlooked the most vulnerable.
Emily Maitlis powerfully articulated the reality of how society has been hit in a recent Newsnight episode. “The language around Covid-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading,” she said, directly addressing the fact that deputy PM Dominic Raab had described Johnson as a “fighter” while he was being treated in ICU.
“You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us,” she continued. “And the disease is not a great leveller – the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth which needs debunking.”
It’s the low-income frontline workers who continue to get up every day, take the bus or train to work and do their shifts, that are more at risk here. The shop workers making sure we have food on our tables, the bus drivers taking NHS staff to work, the waste operatives taking away everybody’s rubbish. They are all more exposed. But they still need to do their job to get paid and put hot meals on their own family tables.
Maitlis is right: this pandemic is no great social leveller. The UK’s history of social and political neglect means vulnerable people have been worse hit. The government calling coronavirus a ‘social leveller’ can’t erase years of the imbalance and hardship. Stylist examines the main ways your social standing affects your place in the time of coronavirus.
Care workers are overlooked
The number of people who have died in care homes has now been released, and it’s devastating. Care workers have been calling for PPE since the outbreak began. Environment secretary George Eustice says he “doesn’t accept” any claims that the government has overlooked care homes, but admits its approach has not been “perfect”.
In February, when coronavirus was already spreading around the world, the UK government used this time to announce the UK would be closing its borders to “unskilled workers”. This meant anyone who works a job with a £25,600-or-less salary, which includes a large number of care workers. These are the people looking after our elderly, without adequate PPE, at a time when a tragic number of care home residents are dying. It’s also worth pointing out that 82% of care workers are women.
“It’s not so much that coronavirus is creating inequalities; it’s more that the crisis is exposing and making worse unfairness that’s longstanding and deep-rooted”, UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea tells Stylist.
“Women, black people, disabled individuals and other groups are feeling these effects more acutely than before. This includes those working in the NHS, but also in care where zero hours and insecure contracts are the norm.”
She adds: “The Covid-19 virus is having devastating consequences on people’s lives, both health-wise and financially. The government must act to ensure those who are already disadvantaged don’t suffer a double blow.”
Food poverty isn’t considered a problem
With most children now having to eat all their meals at home and many parents losing an income, The Trussell Trust tells Stylist it’s hearing anecdotally from food banks that more people are needing their help than ever before.
One in four children in the UK already live in poverty. It is simultaneously astounding and unsurprising that there is such a huge demand for food banks to feed families. But the government has always been reluctant to attribute food bank usage to their welfare reforms.
“There is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and foodbank use,” home secretary Priti Patel said in 2015.
“The typical user of a food bank is not someone who’s languishing in poverty, it’s someone who has a cashflow problem episodically,” added now-deputy prime minister Dominic Raab in 2017.
“As we face a new economic crisis, we must ensure people we already know are more at risk of needing a food bank, and people who aren’t eligible for sick pay or have insecure jobs, have enough money for the essentials,” explains Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust.
“Food banks are doing incredible work to support people but their support shouldn’t be needed. It’s not inevitable that people are forced to food banks as a result of this pandemic – there are changes we can make in the short term to protect people, and ways we can move towards a future where people don’t need food banks in the long term. This can change.”
Renting and homelessness are endless crises
Thanks to the housing crisis, it’s predicted that over a quarter of households in the UK will be rented by 2021. Renting is costly and precarious: tenants can be asked to move out by their landlord at any time. We all know the link between the renting crisis and homelessness.
Now, Shelter reports that 1.7 million renters expect to lose their job in the next three months because of the pandemic. The government has included plans to protect private and social renters from eviction in its emergency legislation. But what happens next when many people are still without an income?
“The government has rightly suspended evictions until June, so no one has to face homelessness in the middle of this pandemic. But millions of renters will be in dire straits further down the line without more government support,” says Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter.
“As renters lose their jobs and see their incomes hit, many will have to rely on the welfare safety net for the first time. Our services are already hearing from families in homes they could comfortably afford under normal circumstances, who are now in serious financial difficulty.
“We’re facing an onslaught of people suddenly unable to afford their rent, at a time when people need to stay put and cannot safely move to a cheaper home. To avoid spiralling debt and needless evictions once the ban lifts, the government must increase the housing element of Universal Credit so that it covers the average cost of local rents.”
People from ethnic minorities are yet another statistic
There is a “disproportionate” number of deaths of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. It’s worth noting a 2019 government employment report showed that 42% of black people in the UK work in the public administration, education and health sector – key work roles.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan called for the government to collect and publish data on coronavirus cases and ethnicity, and a review into the disparity in ethnic minority deaths lead by the NHS and Public Health England has since been announced. But for many people from ethnic minorities, this is just another heartbreaking statistic that shouldn’t exist.
Explaining how the BAME acronym is too-often seen in negative headlines, Stylist’s deputy digital editor Jazmin Kopotsha says: “I’m scared that these coronavirus-related deaths will just become another set of devastating statistics about ethnic minorities that’ll hit the news every now and again without enough tangible proof or reassurance that anything is proactively being done about it.”
She adds: “Ethnic minorities are at greater risk because coronavirus is not a social leveller. Our societal set up ensured that black, Asian and minority ethnicities would be the worst hit and, though my heart aches at the inevitability of our racially prejudice landscape it, doesn’t take the sting out of a scenario that shouldn’t be this way.”
These are just a handful of the social issues that are heightened in the pandemic. Although emergency measures have been put in place by the government, it feels like a blue plaster being haphazardly stuck on a deep, gushing wound. Yes, these are unprecedented times, but we would surely be in a more stable position if such disparities didn’t already exist.
We cannot call coronavirus a social leveller right now. But maybe, in the future, we will look back and see it as the thing that ensured real change for a fairer society.