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COVID-19 and Inequality

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Adam Ouarda

From depressing figures of innocent deaths to constant fear of contracting the virus, there is no doubt that we are living in unprecedented times of great uncertainty and universal concern. However, the term COVID-19 means more than its immediate impact. The narrative behind Covid-19 is of great economic danger to our poorest in the society. It can be argued that the pandemic has undoubtedly hit the lowest earners and young people the hardest, meanwhile the richest households fall back on savings and sit on piles of accumulating wealth. But why are we shocked by the impact it has had and can have, when similar global emergencies such as Ebola have starkly warned us of the vulnerability for those economically disadvantaged? Outbreaks like COVID-19 pose a certain grim predictability, a predictability that the inequalities will exacerbate, and progress will be reversed. The brutal truth is that COVID-19 has already worsened existing inequalities within the UK and unless we act fast to mitigate its impact through a bigger mobilised government, there is a real danger of inequalities worsening.

Educational Inequality

Whilst science is right to point out that youngsters have a lower risk of dying from the virus in relation to the elderly, there is no doubt that young people are going to experience the brunt of its economic impact. The indefinite closure of schools was an awaited call, but a worrying one too. It created uncertainty for government, schools and parents as to its impact on education for pupils, in particular those living in deprived circumstances. Whilst, in theory it was planned as a move towards “homeschooling”, in reality many pupils have found the adjustment an impossible one to acclimatise to. The Sutton Trust attempts to quantify this suggesting 34% of parents reported children with no access to tablets, computers or laptops and also lacked an internet connection. It also noted that these children often lived in over-crowded housing conditions which resulted in limited private study space.

Meanwhile, pupils in private schools have been surveyed to be doing far better and engaged, with many private schools continuing lessons remotely and gaining access to online tutoring and quiet study spaces. The online tutoring sector has boomed during this period as parents who can afford educational spending splash out on continuing their child’s education, while for pupils in disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, this isn’t financially possible.

This disparity between the educational resources accessible to pupils, has not just been exposed by Covid-19, but it has created a massive danger of increasing the attainment gap. The gap between pupils from different economic backgrounds is definitely on the rise following the premature school closure, thus policy must act to close the gap, trying to mitigate any impact derived from closure.

Suppressing the gap

As students begin to pull away from each other in line with their financial capability to fund home learning, Covid-19 has exemplified the real inequalities of opportunities experienced by students based on their socioeconomic determinants.

The government should support schools to reopen in part of the summer, and throughout the next academic year, offering catchup lessons on missed curriculum and allowing access to facilities deprived children were without for the better part of 6 months. From this, students can begin adjusting to “normality” and will be able catch up.

Government grants should be widely available for those who have fallen behind during this time. These grants would include vouchers for free tuition. Moreover, students who are without internet access, or home space should be allowed to enter their local library for private study. Libraries play a critical, typically unnoticed, role in the educational framework for students. It’s very limited reopening has left students with nowhere to go to study during the summer. Therefore, its safe reopening must be a priority; it doesn’t make sense that restaurants are allowed to host eat-in services while libraries aren’t able to offer any private study. Priorities must be set right.

Thinking long-term a policy (a rather overdue policy) is nationalised broadband, free to everyone. The need to make the internet an accessible right for all as much as healthcare had been mentioned pre-crisis. It had been cited as causing a lot of inequalities between different regions. Had this policy been in progress pre-crisis many students would have benefited from it.

The young generation are inevitably going to be adversely impacted by Covid-19, but policies should work intuitively to counter these widenings ensuring that everyone’s potential is met. From this we can secure a productive future economy (something we now desperately need).

Occupational Exposure:

Some of the lowest paid sectors have often fallen under one of the “shut-down” sectors during this outbreak. This means that those who have probably heavily relied upon the income of their job for day to day survival are now unable to work from home, making them recipients of furlough or worse susceptible for permanent layoff as seen in the 12,000 jobs lost at BA. Meanwhile, individuals who often have higher-paid jobs enjoy the ability to work from their home, meaning their income is mostly undisrupted nor is their job at risk. This is extremely alarming in terms of inequality as the rich begin to hoard money not out of choice but because their income can’t be spent on activities done pre-crisis time. Meanwhile, those on lowest income see significant drops in their incomes whilst their overheads stay the same. The IFS reported how roughly 30% of low-income households reported being unable to “manage a month” if their main income source was lost.

Furthermore, it is argued that low paid jobs are often held by BAME individuals which reports show are likely to have underlying health conditions, such as diabetes due to poor diets. It’s unfortunate social determinants like poor diets, over-crowded housing (where infections spread fast) that are fundamentally causing this disproportionate effect on minority groups. BAME individuals, despite health risks, are still working as essential workers, highlighting the desperate need for their income.

Reports from the ONS mentions this revealing fact that black people are 3.9 times more likely to die from the virus than white people (see chart) and with people in low-paid jobs at a much greater risk of dying from the virus.

Source: ONS, 2020

This is an alarming set of data. Given the disproportionate impact the virus is having on those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds at work, it again highlights the inequalities that have been existing in society and is threatening to worsen the divide by hitting the lowest paid workers the hardest.

It’s also important to note saving ratios among different economic backgrounds. The richest 10% are undeniably going to have 3-4 months worth of savings to fall back on while the saving ratio for workers on low wages is significantly lower, if anything. This is another problem that will cause the disparities between the poor and the rich to expand.

Policies tackling occupational exposure

Initiating a wealth tax (that taxes the accumulated assets of the richest households), which also would incorporate tax on capital gains, is much needed. This would help cover the national debt accumulated during the crisis and provide finance for the measures proposed above.

Moreover, there has to be acknowledgement for the risk exposed to essential workers like nurses, carers and public transport workers. Paying those who worked as essential workers so much less than those who worked from home is flawed. The government needs to increase public sector pay using the increased intake of tax revenue from the richest.

Increasing corporation tax is critical too. For too long big businesses have gone away with huge tax breaks while the poorest suffer by paying higher tax rates. This is morally incorrect and increasing corporation tax to pre 2010 levels (26%) incrementally in a monitored way would help fund pay rises.

Getting rid of zero-hour contracts and temporary contracts, typically found in the lowest paid sectors is a priority in overcoming these growing inequalities. Regardless of the sector employees work in, no one should have to face uncertain income flows and working hours especially under the uncertain current times. Submerging low-paid workers with job insecurity is pure exploitation and is something that needs addressing.

Increasing offering of FSM would provide financial relief for more low-income parents and would also prevent poor diets being fed to children developing in their early years and help tackle obesity.

These proposed policies suggest a trajectory that will eventually lead to a fairer society, one where all are truly free to choose their own destiny. Whilst times are daunting, it’s important for government to take an optimistic approach through committing to radical and unprecedented policies most of which are interventionist supply side policies and acknowledging this as an interconnection of issues. Covid-19 won’t be able to widen inequalities anymore if we get the right grip on it now. Too often it’s the poorest in society who bear the brunt of shocks like this; it's time the better off pay their fair share in helping overcome this outbreak which in turn will significantly help close the growing divide that Covid-19 threatens to accelerate between the richest and poorest.


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