Inequality worsens the pandemic. The pandemic worsens inequality

Submitted by AWL on 19 January, 2021 - 6:23 Author: Sacha Ismail
Woman in mask

New reports from academic researchers and think-tanks have vividly illustrated the connections between the Covid-19 pandemic and social inequality, and made the case — explicitly or by implication — for radical measures in response.

A range of social inequalities have worsened the impact of Covid-19, and Covid in turn has worsened those inequalities.

None of these reports comes from or even really mentions the labour movement, which surely says something too. Socialists must fight for our movement to shake itself up, to become a megaphone for social protest and campaigning.

The Marmot review

February 2020 saw the publication of The Marmot Review 10 Years On, produced by a team led by Michael Marmot, director of UCL’s Institute of Health Equity. That report revisited the relationship between health and social inequality. Now the Marmot team have produced a second follow-up report, Build Back Fairer, on the impact of the pandemic.

The February 2020 review summed up the decade of “austerity”. Improvements in life expectancy in England stalled, something which had not happened since at least 1900. The “social gradient” of life expectancy — the more deprived an area, the shorter life expectancy — became steeper, with inequalities of life expectancy increasing both between and within regions.

Among women in the most deprived 10% of areas, life expectancy fell between 2010 and 2018.

The amount of time people spend in poor health also increased, with that gradient between more- and less-deprived areas steepening too. There was a deepening housing crisis, with increases in problems of housing quality and cost, and of homelessness.

10 Years On was not a political polemic, but it placed the blame squarely at the door of government policy, particularly the sustained decimation of public services and the welfare state. It also highlighted increased inequality and the expansion of “poor quality” work, i.e. the numbers working in poor conditions, with little security and for low pay.

Now, as the new review summarises mildly but damningly, the Tories’ “mismanagement during the pandemic, and the unequal way the pandemic has struck, is of a piece with what happened in England in the decade from 2010… Since then, with the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has changed dramatically. But in England the changes have been entirely consistent with its existing state when the pandemic hit… England’s comparatively poor management of the pandemic was of a piece with England’s health improvement falling behind that of other rich countries [in that decade].”

The impact of the pandemic has been shaped by social inequality. England has the highest excess mortality rate from Covid-19 in Europe (Scotland is narrowly in third place, behind Spain). This is very much a matter of “social determinants”: Covid-19 deaths have been concentrated in more deprived areas and regions, among those in overcrowded housing, among key, manual, low-paid and precarious workers, and among BAME people. And those categories overlap.

Covid-19 deaths are more than twice as high in the most deprived areas as the least. They are almost four times as high among those with “caring, leisure and other service occupations” and “elementary occupations” (so-called “unskilled” manual jobs) as among those with “professional occupations”. They are almost six times as high in the local authority with the highest proportion of overcrowded housing (the London borough of Newham) as in that with the lowest.

All BAME groups have experienced higher death rates than white people. Among Pakistani-background men the ratio is 2.5:1; among black Caribbean men 2.8; among Bangladeshi men 3.4; and among black African men 3.8. The figures for women are lower but similar.

Now reverse the angle, to see how the pandemic has shaped and exacerbated inequality. Marmot reviews the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns on a wide range of social inequalities.

These include the educational experience of children from different backgrounds; the distribution of job losses among different kinds of workers; the prevalence of shut-down employment among ethnic groups; increases in poverty during 2020; how low-income families feel they are coping financially; the difference in financial impact on home-owners and renters; the incidence of domestic violence; mental health problems; alcohol use; physical exercise; and many others…

Almost across the board the pandemic and its handling have hit the worse-off hardest and increased inequality.

One third of families in the top fifth of incomes saved more than usual during the first two months of the pandemic. Meanwhile lower-income families were more likely to take on additional debt, and 50% of people with savings under £1,000 used them to cover everyday expenses.

Estimated numbers living in poverty were over 400,000 higher in summer 2020 than in 2018-2019 (i.e. after a decade of brutal cuts) and almost 700,000 higher in the winter. 270,000 more people were over 50% below the poverty line.

The proportion of low-income families saying they are “living comfortably” declined from 16% to 1%; “doing alright” from 32% to 7%; “just about getting by” from 38% to 14%. “Finding it quite difficult” increased from 9% to 33%, and “finding it very difficult” from 4% to 43%.

Four million people in 14% of households with children experienced “food insecurity” in the first five months of the pandemic, up from 12% pre-Covid-19. In households with three or more children, it was 16%. At the end of this period food insecurity was nearly 50% more prevalent in black and mixed ethnicity households with children than in white households.

4% of the highest-paid are in sectors shut down during the pandemic; 15% of those in the middle; and 34% of the lowest-paid. Workers under 30 from every ethnic group are significantly more likely than older white people to be in shut-down sectors, and older Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers much more likely.

About 18% of home-owners report “lower-than-usual levels of well-being” on at least four of twelve variables, but more like 23% of private renters and 24% of social renters. The increases since the pandemic are much bigger for renters and particularly private renters.

The most deprived pupils are much less likely than the least deprived to be only two months or less behind as a result of school closures; but more likely to be three months behind, over twice as likely to be four months behind, four time as likely to be five months behind, and ten times more likely to be six months behind.

This is a crisis hitting the younger generation of the working class and the worst off hardest.

Unemployment among 16-34 year olds, falling fastest of all age groups in the last months of 2019, grew the fastest from the start of the pandemic, accelerating throughout 2020.

Unhappiness and depression have increased significantly, most dramatically among younger people (16-34 year olds) and among women — and particularly young women. More severe “psychological distress” has grown most sharply among 18-24-year-olds, and somewhat less in each ascending age bracket.

Many of the statistics in the Marmot report are also broken down by ethnicity. As it explains, “structural racism means that some ethnic groups are more likely to be exposed to adverse social and economic conditions, in addition to everyday experiences of discrimination”. It calls this a “fundamental cause of social injustice”.

The Deaton review

A review organised by the (conservative but thoughtful) Institute for Fiscal Studies, chaired by economist Angus Deaton, reinforces the Marmot review’s findings. As the Deaton review’s “new year’s message” puts it:

“Since [our launch a year and a half ago], the world has changed more than any of us could have imagined. And yet Covid-19 seems to have shone a light on many of the issues we raised pre-pandemic, more vividly than we ever could have. It has cruelly exposed huge variations in how easily we are able to weather threats to livelihoods, to educational progress, to physical and mental health. These disparities have been closely correlated with pre-existing inequalities between groups according to their education, income, location and ethnicity...”

The review finds that between March and July 2020, Covid-related deaths were higher in each “decile” (tenth) of local authority areas on the “index of multiple deprivation”. They were much higher in the top three deciles, at 125, 136 and 143 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to an average of around 70 deaths in the bottom five deciles and 80 in the bottom seven. The difference by decile for Covid-related deaths was significantly larger than for the non-Covid-related.

Again reversing the lens, the IFS review found that the pandemic and lockdown have exacerbated inequalities between the higher- and lower-paid and graduates and non-graduates; between the relatively securely employed and those in various forms of insecure employment or self-employment; between pupils at different kinds of schools and from different backgrounds; between ethnic groups; and between age groups.

Between February and April, the proportion of people doing any paid work fell by 40% among those with no more than GCSE-level qualifications, compared to 20% for those with a degree. By the third quarter of 2020, the proportion of non-graduates doing any paid work was still 17% lower than pre-pandemic, compared to 7% for graduates.

Those with a higher education are significantly less likely to be in a shut-down sector than those with only A-Levels, GCSEs or fewer qualifications. They are much more likely to be able to work from home — 45%, compared to 35% for those with A-Levels and 25% for those with GCSEs or less.

The first lockdown resulted in three quarters of the self-employed reporting less work than usual; the biggest reductions were experienced by those on the lowest incomes, many of whom in reality will be precariously employed wage-workers. The self-employed or notionally self-employed on low incomes had already suffered even worse than more securely employed workers in the years following the financial crisis.

The review found particularly sharp differences between men of different ethnic groups in terms of the proportion working in shut-down sectors. In particular, 34% of Pakistani and 48% of Bangladeshi men work in these sectors. 25% of Pakistani men are self-employed.

Before the pandemic primary school children spent around six hours a day on educational activities, essentially regardless of family income. By May 2020 it was 5.5 hours for children from the best off third of families, 4.5 for the poorest and just over four for the middle third.

65% of parents in the richest third of families reported that their child’s secondary school offered active home learning resources, compared with 53% in the poorest third. Pupils at private primary schools were twice as likely as those state primaries to take part in online lessons every day.

By September 2020, those aged 16-25 were more than twice as likely as the oldest group of workers to have suffered job losses during the pandemic; a majority of young workers had seen their earnings fall. In contrast, many older people have benefited financially during the pandemic, with most retired people reporting no financial impact and twice as many reporting an improvement as the reverse. (The wider social and psychological impacts of lockdown, and the economic situation of a minority of poorer pensioners, are another question.)

What is to be done?

The picture these figures compose is stark, fitting closely with observed and anecdotal reality yet also highly alarming. It should function as a call to action.

However, many of the inequalities illustrated by the Marmot and Deaton researchers and others concern primarily inequalities within the working population and the poor. The genuinely rich, and even more so the capitalist ruling class, are harder to see or invisible due to their small numbers. Crucial to the picture is the fact that since 2008 they have significantly increased their wealth at the expense of the working class, other working people and the poor — with the poorest hit hardest. They have increased it again during the pandemic.

To implement policies that can seriously make an impact on the social crisis, we must take control of and redistribute at least a serious chunk of this wealth. Next week I’ll assess the policies advocated by Marmot and other recent reports, in the context of what they say about wider wealth inequality.

Build Back Fairer: the Covid-19 Marmot Review
IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities
• See also our June 2020 article on Covid-19 and BAME groups here

• Follow up article here.

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