This is a think-piece by our Policy Manager, Ele Hicks. Find out more about the range of equality training she delivers here – https://www.diversecymru.org.uk/consultancy-training/ .
As we experience a major world crisis affecting everyone’s health, equalities appears to have fallen down the agenda. Discussions have focused on the idea that the virus does not discriminate; and that anyone can be a victim. This discourse hides the inequalities in society that do in fact have an impact in relation to both the likelihood of contracting COVID-19, and the likelihood of dying from COVID-19. In this piece I’ll talk through some equalities issues I have been considering, and my analysis of them.
Some inequalities have already been highlighted, such as the increased mortality rate amongst older people and recent discussions relating to higher proportions of BAME people in intensive care. Yet others remain hidden, such as discussions focusing on pre-existing health conditions, while failing to highlight the different impacts on disabled people.
Information provided to some disabled people has made them feel pressurised into signing DNA CPR orders, commonly referred to as do not resuscitate orders. The mass of information (including some misinformation) which has been circulated also leads to a confusing situation where many disabled people do not know whether they should be ‘shielding’ or not, and do not know whether they classify as ‘vulnerable people’ in the current crisis.
Other equality issues that have started to emerge relate to issues such as higher rates of overcrowding in accommodation of some black minority ethnic communities. This in itself renders self-isolation impossible and increases the spread of COVID-19 amongst family groups. Equally a lack of information in BSL and community languages, and in accessible formats, such as Easy Read, means that social distancing messages are not reaching all communities. People with childcare and caring responsibilities are also experiencing difficulties with balancing working from home and caring 24/7.
Mental health conditions
The impact of social distancing on mental health has being discussed at length as part of the current situation. However, this discussion has tended to focus on people without any pre-existing mental health conditions. I of course believe focusing people’s minds on good mental health techniques and maintaining good mental health has the potential to raise awareness of mental health and of everyone’s vulnerability to mental ill health in a way that makes it an equivalent of physical health, and is something rarely discussed in society outside of crises. This also has the potential to raise levels of empathy and understanding for people who experience mental ill health.
Yet support and services for people who were already experiencing mental ill health prior to the crisis are having to find new ways of working and new ways to support people who require face to face services, such as counselling, talking therapies, group sessions, and social interaction. Society as a whole is experiencing higher levels of anxiety in terms of fears and anxieties of contracting COVID-19 and for their friends and family’s well-being. For people who experienced anxiety prior to the COVID-19 crisis the levels of anxiety they may be experiencing now have the potential to be beyond most people’s ability to cope on their own, yet the services they rely on have had to change and are not available in a face to face format. Changes to mental health admissions processes during the crisis, including the ability to section people without a second doctor’s opinion, places people with mental ill health at a higher risk of having their human rights infringed.
Whilst access to services and ensuring that the NHS can deal with the current COVID-19 crisis is essential, there is a dangerous precedent set by placing the rights of some individuals above the rights of others. We are overlooking equality at a time when there is significant evidence that, whilst a virus does not discriminate, the circumstances of individuals does have a significant impact on both likelihood of contracting COVID-19 and the likelihood of survival.
Turning to the economic impact of the current crisis, a higher proportion of those in lower paid jobs are women, people with caring responsibilities, disabled people, black and minority ethnic people, people of certain religions and faiths, and younger people. Many of these jobs are in the customer service industry in customer facing roles. As venues have closed, many have been ‘furloughed’ and are receiving up to 80% of their wage. For those on lower earnings, this drop in income can make the difference between being able to feed themselves and their families, or to heat and light their homes or not, when 10% of the UK’s 66.65 million population have no cash savings. Even when this crisis ends and social distancing is eased it is uncertain whether all the businesses that have had to close during the current crisis will survive. This places the job security of those lower earners at risk. We face a very uncertain future in terms of unemployment, in terms of earnings, and in terms of the social economy that we will wake up to at the end of the crisis.
Rays of Hope
However, despite the heavier burden of the current crisis on many under-represented and disadvantaged groups, there are some rays of hope. More people are checking in on their elderly or disabled neighbours and friends; more people are volunteering to help those that require assistance in the current crisis; and people are coming out in force to thank front-line workers at all levels. As a society we are judged by how we treat elderly, disabled, and oppressed groups. We have not been supporting these members of society in the way that we should have been doing and have not been advancing equality in the era of austerity. Many of the cuts made during austerity have fallen hardest on the most oppressed. Working together to support people in this current crisis shows that we can come together as a society to focus on supporting under-represented and oppressed groups. We can work together to advance equality and address the gaps between the richest and the poorest and the gaps between different groups in society. This is a ray of hope, if we can continue this spirit of community and support beyond COVID-19.
We face an uncertain future. As a society it is vital that equality and disproportionate impacts on some groups are recognised and addressed throughout this crisis. We need to continue this approach and our re-discovered sense of community and supporting each other into the future. This is an opportunity to advance equality, by re-discovering a commitment to working together to support our family, friends, and neighbours, and society as a whole. We should remember these efforts when this crisis ends.