Whilst COVID-19 itself does not discriminate, discrimination based on gender, race, disability, age (and other protected characteristics) and/or socio-economic status is leading to people being disproportionately impacted by the virus. People living in poverty already experience a number of violations of their basic socio-economic rights including rights to food, housing, and education, and for many COVID-19 is making things worse. Millions of people have skipped meals since the beginning of the lockdown; those living in overcrowded housing are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19; and students without computers or internet access are unable to follow classes online and are therefore unable to keep up educationally with their peers.
In order to be able to isolate, people need to have enough money to put food on the table and pay their bills. Those who were financially struggling before, will be less able to do this and a third of households have reported already seeing a drop in income because of COVID-19 either due to reduced hours, being furloughed, or being made redundant.
Those most affected by this drop in income are young adults, people who are black minority ethnic, women, and those on the lowest incomes. In fact black and minority ethnic households are nearly twice as likely than white households to have lost either their income or their jobs due to COVID-19. People working in the gig economy are also particularly affected as they are unable to claim statutory sick pay, forcing many to keep on working. Those on lower incomes will be less able to cope with the financial shock of a drop in income because they not only will have fewer savings but also have less flexibility in their budget as most of their income will already be tied up in bills and other essentials leaving little leeway for reduced earnings. Conversely those on higher incomes, may actually be saving money at the moment as their spending on leisure activities falls.
The Government is asking people to stay at home in order to slow transmission but for many people home is not safe because of domestic abuse, and for those who are rough sleeping or are “hidden homeless” home does not exist. Housing has been described by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing as the “frontline defence against the COVID-19 outbreak”. Whilst there have been offers of mortgage holidays for homeowners, renters are often finding themselves in a much more precarious position with little support. One in five renters has been forced to choose between food and bills or paying the rent, and a quarter of renters have been forced to move in with friends or relatives because they are unable to afford their rent. It’s also worth remembering that on average across England, privately rented homes are 28% smaller than owner-occupied homes, and they also fail to meet the decent homes standard more often than owner-occupied homes. Shared housing is a more common living situation for those on lower incomes, especially for those who receive housing benefits, and this living arrangement makes it harder to isolate as people have to share living spaces including bathrooms and kitchens.
Now that schools and university buildings have closed in order to stem the spread of the virus, many classes are now being held online. This is exacerbating the growing gap between those who are able to follow classes virtually and those who cannot. The digital divide is not new, it was one of the key points of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights report after his official visit to the UK in 2018. However COVID-19 has highlighted the urgency to bridge this gap. According to OFCOM less than half of low income households have broadband connection and the ONS has found that the percentage of households with an internet connection increases with household income. Even households which do have an internet connection may not be able to afford sufficient devices for all their children to follow classes online. It is not just school age children that are impacted. In the North East of England we have heard from Sanctuary Scholarship students about the difficulties they have been facing in not only accessing classes online, but also in acquiring food and covering other essential bills on the limited asylum support amount they receive.
To conclude, what we all need from the Government is for them to ensure that wages and welfare payments are inline with the actual cost of living - not just during a pandemic but at all times. This current crisis highlights what happens when millions of people are forced to live hand to mouth in unsecure employment, with an inadequate welfare system, and a housing market that is hostile to renters and unaffordable to those on lower incomes. It should not take a pandemic for the Government to call on Local Authorities to house all people who are rough sleeping. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for them to finally increase universal credit or to allow certain children who have No Recourse to Public funds to have access to free school meals. And this extension of support should definitely not be withdrawn once the pandemic is over.
What we need is for our Government to make our socio-economic rights a reality, to reduce inequalities and discrimination. One way they could start is by implementing Section One of the Equality Act 2010 that would make Local Authorities have due regard to the impact of their decision making on socio-economic inequalities. Just Fair and The Equality Trust are campaigning for this to be enacted and implemented.
By Imogen Richmond-Bishop
Imogen Richmond-Bishop is the Advocacy, Research, and Communications manager for the social rights charity Just Fair, and she is also the Right to Food programme coordinator at Sustain the Alliance for Better Food and Farming.
This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.