Covid-19 and the children of the pandemic

3 Apr 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Apr 2020

Pic: Pixabay

A dangerous myth has been spreading that Covid-19 affects everyone in society in the same way, that it’s an equaliser that has no respect for wealth and status.

Whilst Prince Charles and Boris Johnson will be amongst those to confirm anyone can get it, the impact will not be even – and the worst off, as always, will suffer the most. This is not speculation, in Italy and Spain this is already being played out.

That’s why addressing inequality needs to be at the top of the policy agenda both during the pandemic and for decades to come.

First let’s look at exposure to the disease. The UK think tank Autonomy has just published an analysis of the workers most at risk.

It finds that nearly 11 million people are in occupations that can be categorised as being at meaningful risk of exposure to Covid-19. It finds 3,200,000 in high risk roles. Of these  around 2,500,000 are women. And the average full-time pay across high risk occupations is £574 per week. (The median weekly earnings for full-time employees is £585). One million of these worker are paid what is categorised as poverty wages and 98% of them are women.

When the pandemic passes we will be left pondering why so many of those we have relied upon so much for keeping essential services are paid so little for the risks they have taken. This is an injustice.

Poor housing is another factor. For the better off being confined to home is at worst an inconvenience.  For those who live in poor, damp, inadequately heated homes with no gardens it’s an oppressive, unhealthy confinement. Scope has analysed the relationship between poor housing and health here.

 It’s not just the quality of housing that’s a risk factor: there’s the heightened risk of domestic abuse, child abuse and relationship breakdown.

One group where inequality is especially stark is amongst children. The Institute for Public Policy Research has just published an important report Children of the Pandemic.

It starts with this stark statement: “For a generation of children, a normal childhood is out of reach for the foreseeable future.”

And it points out for the five million children living in poverty across the UK this will be a time of increased fear, hardship and disruption.

The report highlights the enormous disadvantage suffered by children from households who have no internet access and or have mobile phones but no PCs. This means that they are unable to access online resources provided by schools for home learning, putting them further behind wealthier families.

There are no Northern Ireland-specific figures available but the UK-wide ones are stark.

The report states: “An estimated one million children and their families do not have adequate access to a device or connectivity at home. And while figures are unavailable for those under-16, more than a third (36 per cent) of 16-24 year olds live in mobile-only households.”

Those children who rely on internet access at school, in libraries or restaurants and cafes now have no capability to go online as all these are closed for the duration of the crisis.

The IPPR wants to see broadband installed for all who need it and for affected children either to be provided with devices or else loaned them.

It does not even mention those children who live in areas with either poor or non-existent  broadband  – a particularly troubling problem in parts of rural Northern Ireland.

This crisis should help people understand that access to digital services should be regarded as an essential public utility and for government to act accordingly. Suddenly the British Labour Party’s manifesto commitment to providing free broadband for all doesn’t look so bonkers after all.

Access to open spaces for children is another major concern raised by the report. “There are important physical and mental health reasons why access to outdoor spaces is important for children. An estimated 28 per cent of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese. Children aged five and from the poorest income groups are twice as likely to be obese compared to their most well-off counterparts, and by age 11 they are three times as likely.”

Many children live in flats or homes without gardens and the report says local authorities should provide this group with access to parks and other open spaces during the crisis.

Especially vulnerable groups  are “looked after” children and young people who face the fear and uncertainty of illness of foster carers and sickness in care homes and those with special educational needs or disabilities. The facilities they rely on are no longer available nor are respite services for their families and carers.

Anyone with any doubts about the reality of inequality during the pandemic need only look at what is currently happening in both Spain and Italy where the virus has progressed further than in the UK.

The Catalan regional government has just published an interactive map which shows that residents of poorer parts of Barcelona are six to seven times more likely to come down with the virus than those in wealthy areas.

More generally Spain’s economy has generally recovered from the 2008 crisis but still suffers high levels of unemployment (13.7%) and poverty.

Early this week the Guardian newspaper reported on fears of growing social unrest in southern Italy. It’s not been as badly hit by the virus as the more prosperous northern region – the problem here is mounting poverty.

Italy does not have a minimum wage and the self employed are not entitled to social benefits. Around 8.4% of the Italian population (five million people) live in absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is defined as where household income is below a necessary level to maintain basic living standards (food, shelter, housing). The problem in southern Italy is that people are running out of food and money and there have been reports of looting in supermarkets as food banks get overwhelmed.

The fact is that there is a long-established link between poverty and ill health. This is because our health is determined mostly by our social, economic and environmental conditions.

When we faced the last big crisis – the financial meltdown of 2008 – the remedy imposed in the UK and across Europe was austerity. This saved the banks but it exacerbated inequality, driving more into poverty. As a consequence we have weakened our ability to withstand the virus.

Present and future policy needs to reflect this. The virus will have dreadful consequences, but inequality and the abject poverty it causes is the biggest killer of them all.


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