Although the pandemic has been a shared global crisis, people’s experiences have certainly not been the same. Covid has shown that health and wealth are inextricably connected and that inequalities between different groups in our society have a direct bearing on our ability to withstand shocks of this nature.
The health crisis has exposed those inequalities as never before with mounting evidence that disabled people, young people and ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately affected. Who can forget the dawning realisation that the early NHS workers who lost their lives were from ethnic minority backgrounds? As the pandemic wound on, personal stories and research alike showed divergent impacts on employment, education and financial insecurity.
Our aim in setting up the Health Foundation’s COVID-19 impact inquiry was to provide a comprehensive review of the pandemic’s impact on the UK’s health inequalities to date. When we started the inquiry in October 2020 we expected, by now, to be looking at the acute phase of the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. Things have turned out rather differently, but the inquiry nonetheless provides a unique overview of the pandemic, offering insights for recovery.
We found that deaths from covid were nearly four times as high for under 65s living in the poorest 10% of local areas than for those from the wealthiest. Loss of employment among young people was far higher than for older workers. Members of ethnic minority communities experienced a disproportionate loss of income, up to twice the rate among white British people.
We also saw compounding effects for some groups. People in low paid jobs were more likely to work in public-facing roles, to be at greater risk of catching the virus, and to live in multi-generational households where it spread more easily. They often could not afford to self-isolate and had nothing to fall back on if their hours were reduced. They used up financial reserves while others saw savings increase.
Along with the chaos and devastation, the covid pandemic has delivered some positive changes that have the potential to strengthen our society. Working from home, for example, has opened employment opportunities for disabled people, those with caring responsibilities and parents around the country, as attitudes to remote working have finally caught up with the technology. Education too will now be more widely accessible online for some, providing opportunities for people to learn and acquire skills remotely.
The inquiry found that the shape of the UK’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, the last major global shock, had a direct bearing on our experience of the pandemic. In turn, we can expect the nature of the recovery from the pandemic to shape our experience of the next global shock, whatever it may turn out to be. There is a unique opportunity for government to make a purposeful commitment to prioritise health and invest in the things that make us more resilient – such as higher quality jobs, education skills and better protection for people in low paid work.
At the recent G7 Summit, the prime minister himself said it’s vital not to repeat the mistakes of the last recovery. Our inquiry has highlighted the imperative of aiming for a recovery that builds economic and social resilience, with the ‘levelling up’ agenda focusing on the needs of groups who have experienced the most damaging impacts of the pandemic, as well as addressing geographical disparities.
The legacy of the pandemic is all around us in unmet health need, mental health problems, gaps in educational attainment, loss of employment and financial insecurity. If we want to avoid these becoming long-term scars, it’s time to confront our choices about how we value people. With so much at risk and so much to gain, it’s crucial that we prioritise the nation’s health and long term-prosperity.