COVID-19 Day of Reflection: injustices must not be forgotten

As we remember and mourn the people we have lost since the coronavirus pandemic began, this day of reflection is also a time for us to highlight the health and social injustices it has exposed, and come together to call for change, says Helen Barnard.

Today’s National Day of Reflection is a time for us to pause and come together to mourn those we have lost. Many of us will especially remember friends, colleagues and family who caught COVID-19 whilst working to keep the rest of us safe and cared for.

Every life is precious and every death leaves a hole in the hearts of those left behind. But we must acknowledge that the patterns of illness and deaths reveal some deeply uncomfortable truths about our society. The inevitable public inquiry must include an investigation of the enormously unequal impacts of COVID-19, and the economic and social reasons for the much higher death rate among some groups in our society.

The unjust impacts of living locked in poverty

COVID-19 ripped through the country, hurting people from all walks of life, but the death rate was more than twice as high in the most deprived areas compared with the least deprived. Perhaps we should not be shocked by this – deaths from all causes are higher for people trapped in poverty, reflecting the cumulative effect of living with the restraints and grinding pressures of hardship. People living in the most deprived parts of the country can expect to live only 52 years in good health, whilst people in the most affluent areas can look forward to enjoying good health until 70. Given these underlying health inequalities, it is less surprising that the pandemic has led to vastly more people in poverty becoming seriously ill and dying from COVID-19. But it is a stark demonstration of the unjust impacts of living locked in poverty.

Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests helped to drive a greater sense of urgency in tackling racial inequality in the UK, with decisive action long overdue. The consequences of racial injustice are many and complex, including the much higher proportions of people from some Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (BAME) living in poverty, in bad housing and in low-paid, insecure and (in the context of COVID-19) risky work. As is the case when we look at the patterns according to deprivation, long-standing health inequalities can be seen starkly continued in the disproportionately high death rates from COVID-19 among people from Black and South Asian groups.

COVID-19 has compounded problems for low-paid workers

In addition to greater illness and loss, people in poverty and from many BAME groups have also been most exposed to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Coming into COVID-19, 4 million workers were trapped in poverty, already struggling to keep up with the rent and bills. Many were stuck in jobs that were not only low-paid but also insecure. Better-paid workers could often keep their jobs and work safely from home. But workers in poverty bore the brunt of job losses and plummeting earnings; or kept working but in jobs that exposed them to much higher risks – as carers, delivery drivers or in essential shops. Pre-existing inequalities in the labour market have widened. Jobless rates are now twice as high among Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups as White groups. Mothers, already more likely to be low earners, have taken the strain of home schooling and caring and had to cut back paid working hours, piling on financial worries.

As a carer, it was already very hard finding a job which would provide flexibility around caring responsibilities. COVID-19 has made that so much worse, coupled with the additional threats to the person I care for’s health.
Woman, London
As an Uber driver my business went down, hardly any customers, working more hours. Money wasn’t coming in.
Man, Tower Hamlets

How housing has increased this insecurity

Renters disproportionately work in sectors hard hit by the pandemic, and are highly likely to see further waves of job losses later this year. Many were already struggling to keep up with high rents and have been pulled further into debt and arrears. By the end of 2020, 2.5 million households were worried about how they to pay their rent; 700,000 were already in arrears. Once the ban on evictions expires, many are likely to face eviction and homelessness.

You feel like you need to pay off the rent arrears but you just can’t and you feel like you’re letting the landlord down, or you think he’s going to kick us out if you don’t pay it off soon and then find someone else to move in. You don’t want that feeling over your head, but at the same time you can’t pay him because the money ... you’re getting isn’t covering the rent anyway and if you’re in arrears you have to find money from somewhere to pay that off as well.
Renter, Yorkshire
People are facing eviction, and the worry of it being winter with children facing eviction makes it really scary. Even though there is some sort of help about, you put so much energy into it, and there’s so much anxiety, it’s causing a huge strain on everyone’s mental health.
From Grassroots Poverty Action Group as part of UK Poverty 2020/21

Social security has been keeping millions of us afloat

Millions of people turned to social security to help them weather the COVID-19 storm, and the system has held up admirably. The Government acknowledged that cuts and freezes had resulted in an inadequate level of support and boosted Universal Credit payments early in the pandemic. This has been a lifeline for 6 million families, although disabled people and carers have been shamefully shut out of extra support because they receive ‘legacy benefits’ rather than Universal Credit. Even with the extra help, most low-income families have had to cut back on essentials and take on debt. The Chancellor’s determination to cut the Universal Credit lifeline in the autumn has left those of us who most need a system we can rely on facing ever greater fear and uncertainty, reflected in the findings of the COVID-19 Realities project.

This has really illustrated how quick the rug can be pulled from under your feet – people last year who thought they were in a good position are now encountering the benefits system for first time.
Man, London
He said the economic forecast wouldn’t start to stabilise until mid-2022 right, so why is he not allowing the £20 uplift to UC to continue until then? Rather than this September, why September? It’s not when poverty ends is it?
Man, Wales
We don't know how the economy will recover, yet we face more insecurities for those on low income and on Universal Credit. Through COVID-19 Realities, I know that so many families face this insecurity, and it’s just making our daily life – which is already so difficult – only harder still. I wish things could be different. I wish the Government would listen to us.
Caroline, as part of the COVID-19 Realities project

Stand up, stand together and demand change

Today is a chance for us to remember those we have lost and to begin the healing that comes from mourning together. But Marie Curie, who have organised the day, also say that it is about hope for the future. As we look ahead, it is time for us to stand up, stand together and demand changes to make our economy and society healthier and more just.