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COVID-19 and Social Injustices

Updated: Mar 12

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