“Same storm, different boats”: addressing covid-19 inequalities and the ‘long term challenge’

MS Queen Elizabeth in Stornoway

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted upon almost every aspect of life.  However, this impact has not been felt by everyone equally. Some groups of people have been particularly badly affected – both by the virus itself and by the negative social and economic consequences of social distancing measures.  The phrase ‘same storm, different boats’ has been used widely to emphasise this.

The pandemic has exposed and deepened many of the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, including gender, ethnicity and income.  It has also shone a light on more recent inequalities too, such as the growth of precarious employment among sections of the population.

As we move out of lockdown, the long term consequences of the pandemic will continue to be felt unevenly across different sections of society, with those on the lowest incomes being most vulnerable.

As thoughts turn to recovery, there is a growing sense that now is the time to consider how we can create a more equitable society that benefits those most in need.

 

The long-term challenge

During a recent Poverty Alliance webinar, ‘Build Back Better: Poverty, Health and Covid-19: emerging lessons from Scotland’, Dr Gerry McCartney, Head of the Public Health Observatory at Public Health Scotland noted that the coronavirus pandemic was causing three concurrent public health crises:

  • the direct impact of the virus (through ill health and/or death);
  • the indirect impacts on health and social care services (e.g. reduced hospital admissions/referrals, delayed diagnoses); and
  • the long term unintended consequences of physical distancing measures

Dr McCartney’s recent research sets out the different groups at particular risk from covid-19 and outlines a number of ways in which the unintended consequences of physical distancing measures may negatively impact upon health via a complex set of pathways – including reduced physical activity, fear, anxiety, stress, boredom and loneliness, economic stresses related to reduced income and unemployment, the impact of the loss of education, as well as the risk of abuse and exploitation of children not in school, substance abuse, and domestic abuse and violence.

Dr McCartney has also been involved in a project that sought to quantify the direct impact of the pandemic in terms of years of life lost.  The results showed that, over 10 years, the impact of inequality on life expectancy is actually at least six times greater than the direct impact of the pandemic itself.

Dr McCartney referred to this as the “long-term challenge” and argues that in order to address these inequalities, it is crucial that society aims to ‘build back better’ following the pandemic.

Build Back Better

But what does this mean?  Put simply, Build back better argues that pandemic offers an unprecedented opportunity to refocus society on the principles of equity and sustainability.

A recent paper by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) sets out 10 key principles for ‘building back better’, covering a range of environmental, social and governance issues:

It highlights international examples of each of these principles in action, for example, speeding up the adoption of the doughnut economics framework in Amsterdam in response to the pandemic, and through the wellbeing principles implemented by the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) group, consisting of Iceland, New Zealand and Scotland (and recently joined Wales).

Indeed, in Scotland, the independent Advisory Group on Economic Recovery, established by the Scottish Government, have recently published their findings on how to support Scotland’s economy to recover from the pandemic.  It states that “establishing a robust, wellbeing economy matters more than ever”.

Unequal employment impact

One of the guiding principles set out by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery is to “tackle inequality by mitigating the risks of unemployment, especially among groups hit hard by the crisis”.

Indeed, unemployment following the pandemic is unlikely to affect everyone equally – women, young people, BAME individuals and the low-paid are predicted to suffer the brunt.

In a subsequent Poverty Alliance webinar, ‘Addressing unemployment after Covid-19’, Tony Wilson from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) highlights the scale of the problem.  He states that unemployment is rising faster than at any point in our lifetimes (barring a blip in 1947), and is likely to increase by 3 million as a result of the pandemic.

Again, the impact of this will be uneven.  Anna Ritchie Allan, director of Close the Gap, discusses the impact upon women in particular.  As well as being more likely to work in a sector that has been shut down, women are also more likely to have lost their job, had their hours cut, or been furloughed. As women are also usually the primary carers of their children, they have disproportionately affected by the closure of schools and home learning.

A recent report by Close the Gap highlights how the impending post-covid downturn is different than previous recessions, as the restrictions imposed to tackle the virus have impacted most heavily upon sectors that employ large numbers of female (e.g. hospitality, retail, care), as well as services that enable women’s participation in the labour market (e.g. nurseries, schools, and social care). Young and Black and minority ethnic (BME) women have been particularly affected.

For example, Kathleen Henehan, Research and Policy Analyst at the Resolution Foundation, considers how young people’s employment prospects have been affected by the pandemic. She notes that young people leaving education are likely to be worst affected.  However, again, inequalities exist – with those with lower levels of qualifications being particularly affected, and women and BME individuals within those groups affected most of all.

According to Anna Allan, policy to address unemployment as a result of the pandemic needs to be both gender-sensitive and intersectional – taking account of the fact that women are not one homogenous group, and ensuring that any job creation is not just providing more ‘jobs for the boys’.  For example, recent research by the Women’s Budget Group shows that investing in care would create 7 times as many jobs as the same investment in construction: 6.3 as many for women and 10% more for men.

Building forwards

In a third webinar, ‘Disability, rights and covid-19: learning for the future’, Dr Sally Witcher, CEO of Inclusion Scotland, suggests that as well as exposing and deepening existing inequalities, the coronavirus pandemic has created the scope for new inequalities to be created – ‘faultlines’ created by the differing impacts of the virus.

Dr Witcher questions the term ‘build back better’ – she asks whether indeed we should want to build back, when the old normal didn’t work for a large proportion of people, particularly those with disabilities. Dr Witcher also questions ‘who’ is doing the building, and whether the people designing this new future will have the knowledge and lived experience of what really needs to change.

Dr Witcher suggests that for any attempt to ‘build back better’ to be meaningful, it needs to reach out to the people that don’t currently have a voice – the people who have been most heavily affected by the virus.  Not only do these groups need to be involved, but they need to be leading the discussion about what a post-covid future looks like.

A post-covid future

Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has had a massive, devastating impact on people and economies around the world, it has created an opportunity to reflect on what is important to us as individuals and as a society.

There is strong public demand for change. According to a new YouGov poll, only 6% of the public want to return to the same type of economy as before the coronavirus pandemic.

Building back better recognises that addressing the causes of the deep-rooted and long-standing inequalities in our society is critical to a successful post-covid recovery.

There is also a need to protect and enhance public services, address issues of low-pay and insecure work, and prioritise wellbeing and the environment through a ‘green recovery’.

As Tressa Burke, of the Glasgow Disability Alliance, states:

History will recount how we all responded to the coronavirus outbreak.  We need to ensure that the story told demonstrates our commitment, as a society, to protecting everyone from harm, particularly those most at risk of the worst impacts of covid.”


For further discussion of the wellbeing economy, you may be interested in our blog post ‘How well is your economy? Moving beyond GDP as an indicator of success

The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. 

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