'Covid-19 is magnifying the inequalities in society'

Dr Lynne Guyton
Tuesday, April 28, 2020

‘Dig deep’ we are told. ‘Be strong’. It’s as if by displaying strength of character that we can ‘fight’ the virus; otherwise you may be considered at best a naysayer and at worst weak.

Language and the sentiment behind it matter, and no greater than at this time. For the rich and the poor this disease knows no boundaries – we are all equal now. Look! Even the PM had the virus, so we are all in this together. Let’s evoke the Blitz spirit of Second World War; that will get us through! Really? There needs to be a wake-up call and fast.

We have been dropped into isolation, turbulence and uncertainty with none of us knowing when this will end. We are not all suffering in the same way, and we are not all united: rich and poor; able bodied and disabled; weak and strong. Covid-19 is not making everyone feel equal; rather it is magnifying the inequalities in our society.

First, let’s look at the immediate situation we find ourselves in.  Lockdown as a renter with a young (and sometimes extended) family in an overcrowded flat with no garden is quite a different experience to those who own their homes and have ample outside space to exercise in. Such overcrowded accommodation means people are much less likely to self-isolate. In addition, the well-off (a disproportionately large part of the service sector) are also more likely to be able to work from home. In contrast, manual workers, including bus drivers, shelf stackers and hospital staff - cannot work from home and are still trying to work with increased risk of infection.

For families with children, the lockdown represents a huge change and challenge. Since 23 March, schools and nurseries have been shut for most children across the UK, and social distancing rules preclude most activities outside the home. Informal childcare by grandparents and other friends and family has been ruled out, and even contact between parents who do not live together is falling. Parents are facing greater responsibility for supervising and educating their children at the same time as many are trying to adapt to working from home or, in the case of poorer households, still trying to work outside of the home.

Many households are experiencing falls in their income as a result of the coronavirus crisis. What they normally spend their money on will matter for how well they can weather this storm, says the Institute of Fiscal Studies. If a household typically spends much of its budget on essential items, it has less scope to adjust to a lower income by reducing spending without incurring hardship. Indeed, the share of spending accounted for by essentials is much higher for poorer households than richer households. The poorest fifth of households direct 55 per cent of their budgets on average to essentials, compared with just 39 per cent for the richest fifth.

At the other extreme, if a large fraction of a household’s budget goes on the kind of social and recreational activities that are now prohibited, or on commuting, which is now unnecessary for many workers, it may require little – or even no – further adjustment to cope with a fall in income. Ironically, because the rich are not spending on dining out, travel, theatre etc, their savings (and wealth) will increase during this period, thereby widening the social and economic divide.

Turning to look at a post Covid-19 future, the pandemic and the measures put in place to combat it, have changed almost everything about how people live their day-to-day lives. In the aftermath of the most severe economic downturn in our history – where there is less likely to be a V-shaped or even U-shaped recovery but a bathtub-shaped recovery - it will be the young and the most disadvantaged in society that will bear the brunt. The blow of 10 hard years of austerity is now being compounded with the economic impact of Covid-19.

Rather than tightening and squeezing budgets we need to rebuild our economy – all of it. That means investing to reverse the inequalities in our society. As a funder focusing grant making to children and young people, we are already stepping up our efforts to increase funding to those most in need, as are many of our peer funders. The unprecedented demand for grants – as demonstrated through requests made to the London Community Response Fund – shows us that if ever there were a time to step up and use the money put away for a rainy day, it is now.

Dr Lynne Guyton is chief executive of John Lyon's Charity



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