Although the pandemic has been a shared global crisis, people’s experiences have certainly not been the same. Covid has shown that health and wealth are inextricably connected and that inequalities between different groups in our society are directly related to our ability to withstand shocks of this nature.
The health crisis has exposed these inequalities like never before, with mounting evidence that people with disabilities, youth and ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately affected. Who can forget the realization that the first NHS workers to lose their lives came from ethnic minorities? As the pandemic progressed, personal stories and research showed divergent impacts on employment, education, and financial insecurity.
Our goal in creating the Health Foundation COVID-19 Impact Consultation was to provide a comprehensive review of the impact of the pandemic on UK health inequalities to date. When we began the investigation in October 2020, we expected, by now, to be looking at the acute phase of the pandemic in the rearview mirror. Things have turned out quite differently, but the research nonetheless provides a unique overview of the pandemic, offering insights for recovery.
We found that covid deaths were nearly four times higher for those under 65 living in the poorest 10% of local areas than for the richest. Job loss among young people was much higher than among older workers. Members of ethnic minority communities experienced a disproportionate loss of income, up to twice the rate among white Britons.
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We also saw compound effects for some groups. People in low-paying jobs were more likely to work in public-facing positions, to be at higher risk of contracting the virus, and to live in multigenerational households where it spreads more easily. They often couldn’t afford to isolate themselves and had nothing to turn to if their working hours were reduced. They depleted financial reserves while others saw savings rise.
Along with the chaos and devastation, the covid pandemic has brought about some positive changes that have the potential to strengthen our society. Working from home, for example, has opened up job opportunities for disabled people, people with caregiving responsibilities, and parents across the country, as attitudes toward remote working have finally caught up with technology. Education will also now be more accessible online for some, providing opportunities for people to learn and acquire skills remotely.
The research found that the shape of the UK’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, the last major global shock, had a direct influence on our experience of the pandemic. In turn, we can expect the nature of the pandemic recovery to shape our experience of the next global shock, whatever that may be. There is a unique opportunity for the government to commit to prioritizing health and investing in the things that make us more resilient, like higher-quality jobs, educational skills, and better protection for people in low-paying jobs.
At the recent G7 Summit, the prime minister himself said that it is vital not to repeat the mistakes of the latest recovery. Our research has highlighted the imperative of targeting a recovery that builds economic and social resilience, with the ‘leveling off’ agenda focusing on the needs of groups that have experienced the most damaging impacts of the pandemic, as well as addressing geographic disparities.
The legacy of the pandemic surrounds us in the form of unmet health needs, mental health problems, gaps in educational attainment, job loss, and financial insecurity. If we want to avoid scarring in the long term, it’s time to confront our decisions about how we value people. With so much at risk and so much to gain, it is critical that we prioritize the long-term health and prosperity of the nation.