COVID exploits the scars of poverty — Dawn Bowden MS

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Acting Against Inequalities

In questions to the First Minister yesterday (13.05.20) I asked how the Welsh and UK Governments can continue to act to help ensure that those communities suffering the greatest inequalities in health, like so many other determinants of wellbeing, will be supported going forwards. I believe this will be imperative as, and when, the country seeks return towards the direction of a new normality.

There are of course clear linkages in all these determinants of our wellbeing. Even though the UK has for decades maintained a welfare state it has not managed to transform the lives of far too many families and communities in debt. It has been a faulty safety net and not delivered sufficient change.

Clear and Mounting Evidence

There is clear and mounting evidence that the impacts of this virus are not felt uniformly across society. Yes, the virus filled media headlines as it struck hard at the heart of Downing Street and UK governance. But more generally, it is those communities which were most stressed at the point of “lockdown” which have, and will continue to suffer the most from the effects of the virus. This we have seen includes black and ethnic minority communities.

This picture around covid and poverty is true in Wales, and as reported in the Guardian here — “People in deprived areas of Scotland more likely to die from Covid-19”- for Scotland as well. The areas suffering hardest in England are reported as including communities suffering the highest rates of poverty. The evidence around London Boroughs clearly points to those communities hit hardest by this virus: Newham, Brent and Hackney reported the highest registrations of death per 100,000 population in the first half of March.

As the BBC reportedSeparate ONS data released on 1 May shows that, once you take the age of population into account, the rate of deaths involving Covid-19 is roughly twice as high in the most deprived areas of England and Wales as in the least deprived”.

New analysis

Citizen’s Advice Cymru have now issued analysis of the situation in a report titled “Facing the cliff edge” stating:

“The Coronavirus pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on household finances. In Wales, we estimate that around 250,000 people have already seen their hours cut, been laid off, or made redundant as a result of the outbreak. More than 4 in 10 (42%) 1 people have seen their household income drop because of the crisis, with nearly 1 in 14 (7%) losing 80% or more”.

As reported above in relation to the impact on communities evidence: “We know that people in more deprived areas are less likely to have jobs where they can work from home,” (Helen Barnard from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation).

These problems are well analysed here in Wales by the Bevan Foundation here including: “Around two-fifths of Welsh households lack the savings and liquid assets necessary to replace their regular income for three months. And more than a quarter of Welsh households don’t have enough savings to cover their regular income for just one month”.

More to come?

The problems recently analysed by CAB Cymru, Bevan Foundation etc have arisen even though UK and Welsh Governments have acted and taken extensive steps to “hibernate” the economy. There has been widespread provision of extensive grants and loans, with pressures to fill more gaps in support, to step up support for certain sectors and Treasury worries about how long such support can continue.

And yet there is a nagging feeling, what if even a minor proportion of those currently in hibernation don’t make it very far once the support of government is tapered or removed? It is clear that a pathway back to the “new normal” contains many perils as the capacity of the UK and Welsh economies adjust to a lower trajectory for the short to medium term.

Tsunami of debt

While we are perhaps a generation that is familiar with the impact of a natural tsunami, seeing the devastation unleashed on normal communities becoming overwhelmed by extreme events. But with the evidence that exists about the precarious health and economies of so many communities we could easily face a new tsunami of poverty and debt due to covid-19, and we must be ready to act.

Tackling causes and not just effects

Too many characteristics of the pre-lockdown society have been exposed:

  • the gig economy
  • zero hours contracts
  • undervalued professions on low pay(e.g. care)
  • pay freeze policy
  • outsourcing and fragmentation
  • just in time production
  • life essentials beyond reach (safe and secure homes)

as fragile and as causes of debt in creating, at a time of testing, less resilient communities. For Governments that seek to tackle inequalities, like in Wales, the challenges to change the rules of the new normal are significant — but try we must.

In contrast we have seen the rush in one country of the UK just this week has been to attempt a signal of return to the normal. “Get back to work”, and the result has been packed public transport and insufficient preparation. The virus must be delighted at these opportunities to wreak more havoc.

Conclusion

None of this is easy.

We know the scars of long term poverty, deprivation and inequality had already hit some communities hard, but covid-19 is further infecting these deep economic wounds, as well as our bodies.

We must be alert to the need for further, sharp and continuing action to help restore the health of our economies and our health.

I conclude that while there may be some variations in ‘covid and policy’ across the four nations of the UK but we can be reasonably sure that the relationship between ‘covid and poverty’ seems consistent!

Dawn Bowden is the Member of the Senedd for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

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