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COVID-19 and Social Injustices

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

The current pandemic does not exist in a vacuum of the binary states of infection, but seeps into, impacts, and is impacted by every aspect of society. Its relationship with inequalities has particularly been thrusted into the spotlight, because of how they directly influence the pandemic’s evolution in such a complex, nuanced, and time-dependent way.

Indeed, COVID-19 has changed everyone’s life to some extent, but this extent varies greatly in levels of intensity and precariousness, and often functions in parallel to socioeconomic trends. A sudden, unexpected global pandemic produces loss and uncertainty for all, but a few cancelled holidays and months indoors for some, is the same as risky front-line work, crowded living spaces, and health injustice for others. While some can already see the light at the end of the tunnel, others have been disadvantaged for decades, or even generations and lifetimes to come, as COVID-19 is exacerbating the very inequities at hand. Effective policy responses, therefore, should acknowledge that blanket measures will be less than adequate when alleviating the current crisis, or containing the reverberating ripples of damage that has been sourced from COVID-19. Thus, in addition to this pandemic strengthening existing injustices, it also provides a framework on which important evidence can be highlighted, and used as a propeller for further advocacy, discussion, and change.

Sections of society have not had uniform experiences with COVID-19, because of stark contrasts in their lived realities across intersections of race, class, sex, and other demographic features. Commonly being known as the ‘great equaliser’, pandemics are thought of to transcend wealth, race, or location, as a disease that affects everyone equally. But COVID-19 has adversely affected marginalised communities, so much so that the virus cannot be described as indiscriminate. Deeply entrenched health inequalities have been exposed, of which when interacted with environmental and class inequalities, mean that low-income classes and Black, Asian and ethnic minorities (BAME) are most at risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. Firstly, urban spaces are not independent to racism, but manifest along lines of discrimination, in forms of gentrification, poor designs of green spaces or lack thereof, disproportionate air pollution, and overcrowded housing. Given that racial disparities in urban infrastructure already result in a higher likelihood of ill-health, COVID-19 only magnifies this effect. In a British report conducted to see the effectiveness of green spaces in reducing health inequalities, only 53% of Bangladeshi people reported feeling comfortable using their local green space, compared to 75% of their white counterparts; reluctance was due to feeling unsafe because of poor design and racial attacks. Social distancing and sanitation is more difficult to achieve in crowded housing, of which is more likely amongst BAME backgrounds, when multiple generations live under one roof. In U.K. households, 24% of overcrowding are from Bangladeshi backgrounds, subsequently followed by Pakistani (18%), Black African (16%), and Arab (15%) backgrounds. Developed cities also saw wealthy residents move out of urban areas when the pandemic hit, but such flexible mobility is not possible for low-income residents that have been displaced via gentrification.

Marginalised groups have a disproportionate representation in precarious, essential jobs, as well as frontline work, and thus receive higher potential exposure to the virus. In the U.S., women make up half of the country’s workforce, but nearly two-thirds of frontline jobs. 4 in 10 frontline workers are people of colour, and one in 6 is an immigrant- all overrepresented. This is significant because essential workers and frontline staff are often unable to work from home; as low-income workers, quitting their job is also not an option. 30% of low-income households in the U.K stated that losing their main source of income would render them helpless within a month, because of the high proportion of budget that is spent on necessities such as food or rent. These, when combined with the prominent systemic healthcare racism, contribute to marginalised communities’ higher rate of contracting the virus -- and higher risk of mortality after contraction. Indeed, for some, it is a tradeoff between putting no food on the table or a game of life and death.

Not only is COVID adversely affecting marginalised communities the most in terms of physical health, it greatly impacts wellbeing in a multitude of other aspects too, and even reverses progress of building a fairer, more equal society that has already been made. Class divisions and uncertainty of income have been exacerbated amongst people that were already struggling; excluding key workers, the majority of low-income workers are in sectors that are forced to shut down- 80% of such people in the U.K. cannot work from home, compared to only 25% of high-income workers. Gender equality has equally been affected, and grievously so - U.K female employment pre-crisis was at record-high, but school and childcare facilities forcing to close has meant that childcare responsibility has burdened mothers more than fathers, halting progress in gender wage gaps. Gender based domestic violence during lockdown has especially been a cause for concern, especially since 2.73 billion women around the world were faced with stay-at-home orders, potentially reversing the progress made in justice for women.

What is perhaps most unsettling, and in need of urgent relief and discourse, is the serious social and economic consequences that we cannot witness now, but will be evident in decades to come, as the lives of today’s youth unfold. The disparity in how students and children have experienced COVID is rooted in their socioeconomic differences, and the irony is, that the already grim repercussions of these differences at hand will be accentuated, perhaps even irreversibly, because of the pandemic. In the U.S., some 55 million students below the age of 18 had a lack of face-to-face teaching in 2020, and whilst schools subsequently had contingency plans to carry out teaching online, inequities in access, and quality of technology, mean the resulting disparity in quality and quantity of education received is stark. 64% of American teachers in schools with a large number of low-income students said their students encountered technology, equipment, and broadband constraints, compared to only 21% in schools with a wealthier demographic. McKinsey found that 40% of African-American students received no online instruction during school closures, compared to 10% of white students. Technology is not the only issue; in the U.K., 20% of children within the top income group received private tuition, compared to 9% of people in the bottom-income group. Private schools and better-off state schools are in addition more likely to have learning activities that involve ‘active engagement’ to replace in-person instruction, of which not only complement home learning the most, but rely less on parental time and ability. Since caretakers of students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to be essential workers, and are more inclined to be required to invest time and effort to make their children’s home learning effective, low-income families are most at risk of low educational attainment. School shutdowns impact socio-economic divides in generations to come, not least because of how advantages and disadvantages in one’s life span development accumulate over the life course, and is self-reinforcing in its results.

The verdict is, that COVID-19 will leave challenging legacies for inequality. However, it also creates opportunity; the numerous studies and literature that shine a light on the intersections of COVID with social injustices will be important evidence for future policies. Future response to crises must acknowledge that deep inequalities exist, of which need tailored and effective policies that fight prevailing systemic biases.

- Jiaying Zhang

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