“There [are] all sorts of multiple deprivations that people are subject to now and I think Covid is throwing a light on the cracks in society and I think we’re going to have to rethink how we exist as a society, how we care for one another, how we care for the most vulnerable people in our society.” – Carol Cooper, Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust (Ford, 2020).
Nolan writes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brutally exposed “the macro rules of social life, and their systems of stratification” (Nolan, 2020, 1). Not only has it exposed preexisting social inequality, but it has also exacerbated it. Chronic health conditions, which increase the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, are much more prevalent in those from lower socioeconomic groups. Further, this pandemic is not only more likely to kill or hospitalise those from lower socioeconomic groups, but it also is more likely to impact their employment. Jobs typically held by middle-class people are more suitable for working from home, thereby allowing those already more privileged and affluent to both keep their jobs and protect their health from the comfort of their likely technologically well-equipped and more spacious homes. While I do not suggest this has been easy, especially for those who have additional caring or home-schooling responsibilities, class systems have allowed the more privileged the opportunity to stay safe from the virus and keep their jobs. Working-class people are more likely to be employed in hospitality, retail, or work in the trades. Not only are these jobs more dangerous, as they are public-facing, but these industries have generally been the most heavily impacted by lockdowns. In Ireland, the scheme introduced to protect those who had been forced into unemployment due to the pandemic included at least one third more money than the standard unemployment benefits pre-pandemic. Those who were unemployed before the pandemic do not have access to this increase, therefore creating a “two-tier” system of unemployed people, which disadvantages the most vulnerable in society (Nolan, 2020, 2).
The economic impact of Covid has been described as a ‘shecession’, describing how the nature of this crisis is more likely to impact women’s financial and working situations. Landivar et al.’s preliminary data visualisation shows that women’s employment rates are more likely to be affected by Covid-19, most likely due to childcare and caring responsibilities (Landivar, 2020). The inequality is worsened in those with dependents but still pervades in women without children’s employment rates. With the increase in caring responsibilities for vulnerable relatives and children due to school closures, it is already being shown that women are filling these roles. Women are making time for these extra responsibilities by reducing working hours, thereby slowing the prospects of reaching gender equality in the workplace and impacting individuals’ career prospects. Less fortunate women are having to find the hours to work at night instead of sleeping, affecting their long-term health, wellbeing, and performance at work (Topping, 2020). It has been shown that around three-quarters of working mothers’ employers have refused them the furlough that they are entitled to due to their childcare responsibilities, leading to single mothers relying on foodbanks or reducing sleep to four hours a night in order to continue working (Topping, 2020).
The death rate among Black Caribbean Brits is around three times that of White Brits, even when accounting for age, gender, and location. Additionally, Black African British people are around 3.5 times more frequent, and British Pakistanis are also 2.7 times more likely to die (Siddique, 2020). This inequality in risk of death, even when accounting for differences in age and other relevant factors, has been linked to the fact that these minority groups are more typically employed in key worker and other frontline roles. This illuminates that the lack of protection for frontline workers is an issue stemming from systemic racism. Lack of PPE, evidence of BME doctors and nurses feeling pushed into Covid wards, even the growth of widespread denial of the existence of the virus among groups of privileged White people in the US and the UK can be drawn back to system racism and pervasive racial bias in the culture. In the UK, BME nurses have been reported as feeling that they were being pushed into frontline positions, in some cases being taken from the wards they work on to be reappointed on Covid wards (Ford, 2020). While it has been recognised that the increase in the death rate among Black British people could be down to the comorbidities, the racialised power dynamics which exist within society alongside these nurses’ reports imply that system racism has forced BME workers into life-threatening situations.
As is most often the case, the most vulnerable in society are those who stand at the intersection of these layers of social stratification. In this glimpse at the evidence of where the pandemic has induced and exacerbated inequality, it is clear that the pandemic is far from being the great equaliser, and that the brunt of this pandemic is carried by the already vulnerable. As Carol Cooper outlines in the quote above, the pandemic has very clearly illuminated the inequalities which pervade our societies across the world, urging us to rethink how we exist collectively, and how we care for the most vulnerable.
Written by Mary Kemp-Bruce.
Ford, M. (2020). ‘Exclusive: BME nurses ‘feel targeted’ to work on Covid-19 wards.’ Nursing Times, 17 April 2020. Available at: https://www.nursingtimes.net/news/coronavirus/exclusive-bme-nurses-feel-targeted-to-work-on-covid-19-wards-17-04-2020/
Landivar, L. Ruppanner, L., Scarborough, W., and Collins, C. (2020) ‘Early Signs Indicate That COVID-19 Is Exacerbating Gender Inequality in the Labor Force’, Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, Vol 6., pp. 1-3. DOI: 1d0o.i1.o1r7g/71/02.1317870/233718202039142709947997.
Nolan, R. (2020) ‘‘We are all in this together!’ Covid-19 and the lie of solidarity’, Irish Journal of Sociology, 0:0, pp. 1-5 DOI: 10.1177/0791603520940967.
Siddique, H. (2020) ‘British BAME Covid-19 death rate more than twice that of whites.’ The Guardian, 1 May 2020. . Available at: www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/01/british-bame-covid-19-death-rate-more-than-twice-that-of-whites (accessed 2 May 2020).
Topping, A., (2020) Furlough refused to 71% of UK working mothers while schools shut – survey, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jan/13/furlough-refused-to-71-of-uk-working-mothers-while-schools-shut-survey.
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