James Small-Edwards discusses how Covid-19 has exposed the deep inequalities within British society and why we must redouble our efforts in dismantling injustices.
There was a brief period at the outset of the pandemic where, unlike during the years of austerity, it really did appear as if we were all in this together. Covid-19, it seemed, did not care where you were from, what job you did or how much money you have. This feeling of the entire population facing a common enemy on equal terms was incredibly unifying — especially after the great divisions within the country in the last few years — and was key to boosting public morale to combat the virus.
However as the data has poured in, it has unfortunately become clear that this idea of everyone facing the threat on equal terms has been a fallacy. The omnipotent issues of race and class have played — as they always seem to — a huge role in determining your chances of catching, and subsequently dying from, Covid-19.
With regard to race, the ONS has reported that black people in England and Wales are over four times more likely to die from the virus than their white counterparts. Disparities in wealth, health and living arrangements have largely been accepted as pertinent factors, however the data shows that even when such factors are taken into account and adjusted for, black people are still dying at twice the rate of their white counterparts.
Whilst we should welcome Labour’s review into the issue, which is being led by Doreen Lawrence, we must not be afraid to tackle tough questions right now, such as are black people in this country really experiencing an equal level of care and treatment? The evidence, sadly, seems to suggest not.
In addition to race, class has also had a great bearing on one’s chances of dying from Covid-19. It is London’s poorest boroughs that have the highest death rates in England and Wales, with Newham at 144.3 deaths per 100,000, Brent at 141.5 and Hackney at 127.4. Far from being the place of Brexiteer fantasy — a city solely composed of a wealthy, left-liberal elite — Covid-19 has shown the true story of the capital, which is a story of high levels of poverty and inequality; problems which are causing unnecessary fatalities in this crisis.
The class disparities of Covid-19 are not just limited to London however, as the most deprived areas of Wales have seen a mortality rate nearly double that of its least deprived areas. In response to these figures some may attempt to suggest that, whilst of course unfortunate, there is little the government can do to address this unequal distribution of Covid deaths. It is, however, government decisions that can be seen to be a root cause of much of this unequal distribution.
Liverpool has one of the highest death rates outside London (81.8 per 100,000) and is also the local authority to have seen the biggest cuts to its budget since 2010. Similarly cuts to housing benefit and the bedroom tax have forced people into cramped accommodation, providing a fertile atmosphere for the spread of a virus. We can even see that government decisions being taken right now are still favouring wealthier groups, as middle-class professionals are advised to continue working from home, whilst cleaners, labourers and manufacturing workers are told to risk their health and return to work.
Far from being a great leveller, it is clear that Covid-19 has in fact highlighted, and further exacerbated, the rampant inequalities in our society. However, for those of us on the progressive side of politics, our response to these injustices must not be limited to despair. Instead these reports must motivate us to redouble our efforts in developing policies — such as universal basic income, a national care service or an ambitious house-building programme — that will in the future alleviate the inequalities that Covid-19 has highlighted.
As ultimately why are we involved in progressive politics, if not to dismantle injustices based on race and class.
James Small-Edwards is a Philosophy and Politics student at The University of Edinburgh and a member of Westminster North CLP. A keen writer on domestic and international affairs he is Comment Editor of The Student, his university's student newspaper.
Follow him on Twitter @JSmallEdwards