No, COVID-19 is not a great leveller

One of the biggest myths to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is that Corona virus is a great leveller, a sickness that strikes all communities with equal venom irrespective of social standing or race. 

Gove: ‘The virus does not discriminate.’

The myth has been pedalled by politicians eager to acquire the common touch and welcomed by those keen to see harmony prevail in a nation long divided along class lines and scarred by three years of wrangling over Brexit. And it has been helped along by the presence of high profile COVID-19 survivors. Sex symbol Idris Elba got it, as did Prince Charles, actor Tom Hanks, footballing legend Kenny Dalglish, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and, of course, Boris ‘man of the people’ Johnson.

While it’s undoubtedly true that COVID-19 presents us with a common cause around which many of us can rally, it certainly isn’t the case that we are all equally affected by it. We’ve always known that COVID discriminates. From the beginning we knew it posed more of a risk to older people than the rest of us and it soon emerged that men and BAME people were more likely to fall victim to it. 

Those early findings are supported by a report published by the Intensive Care National Audit Research Centre, which shows the median age of patients critically ill with COVID-19 to be 60, with 72% of these being men and 34% hailing from BAME communities (ICNARC, May 1st2020).  

What has been less well publicised is that COVID-19 is also hurting lower income earners far more than other groups. The two most deprived quintiles of the population are 50% more likely to fall critically ill with COVID-19 than higher earners (ICNARC, 2020) while the rate of deaths involving COVID-19 is more than twice as high in the most deprived areas than the least deprived ones (ONS, May 2020). 

As is the case under normal circumstances, low income Britons are paying for their relative poverty and low social status with their lives. COVID-19 aside, the number of deaths from all causes in any given period in Britain increases with each step along the scale from the most to least privileged decile of the population In 2017, for example, the worst off tenth had 518 deaths per 100,000 while the most privileged tenth had 152 (ONS, 2019).

Everyone’s health is worsened by the stresses brought on by inequality but people at the lower end of our social pecking order pay the highest price of all, suffering the greatest levels of stress and the worst health. 

Given that lower income Britons were in comparatively poor health before the pandemic struck, their high COVID-19 mortality rate was to be expected. Those with underlying conditions are at greater risk of dying with the virus than those in robust health.

But their health is not the only problem. Poorer people’s social and economic circumstances have left them exposed to elevated levels of hardship and increased financial and health risks during the COVID confinement. They are more likely to live in crowded homes with no gardens and to have jobs that bring them into contact with the public (delivery jobs, supermarket workers, rubbish collectors etc) and they are less likely to be able to work from home, have savings or the capacity to deliver effective home education. 

Another group that been especially hard hit by the virus and lockdown is disabled people. Being among the poorest people in the land, they are experiencing all the problems associated with relative poverty in addition to challenges related – directly and indirectly – to living with their impairments under confinement conditions.

Access to food is one major issue, with many seriously ill disabled people having been left off the Government’s ‘extremely vulnerable’ list, which entitles people to free food deliveries. Too frail to risk shopping expeditions, they are either going hungry or relying on drop offs from friends, family, neighbours and volunteers if they’re lucky enough to have a support network. 

Moreover, loneliness has greatly intensified for many disabled people as day centres, clubs, groups, shops and work places have closed down and visitors have stopped coming. Thirty five per cent of disabled people have said that spending too much time alone is impacting on their wellbeing compared to 20% of non-disabled people (ONS, April 2020).

Finally, the Coronavirus Act has removed safeguards from the Mental Health Act and effectively suspended the Care Act 2014 duties on local authorities in England to assess and arrange services to meet the needs of adults with disabilities and their carers. Amounting to a peeling back of disabled people’s rights, these changes will have a huge impact on people’s quality of life, especially those with mental health problems, learning disability and Dementia.

COVID-19, then, is certainly not a great leveller. Instead of democratising our suffering, the pandemic has further exposed the fault lines of our fractured society. Granted, there has been some increase in our levels of co-operation in the face of our common foe, but our alleged newfound sense of national camaraderie has been overstated. 

We may bang pots and pans to thank the NHS but the reality is that more than a third of people surveyed by ONS in April were not confident that a local community member would help them out in a crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And let us never forget how people behaved in the early days of the crisis, with panic buyers emptying our supermarket shelves as they stockpiled food. Some people even posted videos of their bounty on Facebook, their footage showing rooms stacked from floor to ceiling with food. It was less ‘spirit of the blitz’ and more ‘spirit of loads-a-money!!!’ It would only have got worse if food suppliers hadn’t done a sterling job of speedily re-filling our shelves. 

Panic buying affects food banks

In recent weeks, many people have been flagrantly violating the social distancing rules, partying, holding picnics, meeting friends and sunbathing in parks. Some have blamed this behaviour on a lack of clarity over the rules, but until May 10th the rules on going out were crystal clear. 

It’s no surprise people have been behaving in this way. One of the key problems with severely unequal societies is that people tend to be individualistic, competitive, atomised and uninterested in the common good.

There is, however, a slither of hope. This pandemic has revealed the importance of low paid workers and public services (and how underfunded they are). It has shown that the Government can act to support ordinary people if it wants to. And it has reminded us how unequal we are. Perhaps these lessons will nudge us towards the realisation that it’s time to become a fairer society.