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Inequality laid bare beneath a rhetoric of equality

Writing by Ali Gavin. Illustration by Polly Burnay.

Far from putting socio-political issues and general agitation on hold, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight and emphasise some of the deepest divisions within our society. These are issues that, far too often, fly under the radar or are only discussed in certain circles, at certain moments. Now, as the entire world struggles to come to terms with life within the grips of the virus, the unevenness of our collective footing cannot continue to go unnoticed. This period of quarantine has, if nothing else, been an opportunity to properly educate ourselves on the challenges that the virus has posed to people within certain demographics on a global scale.

Social inequality is not a new phenomenon, but the divide between the rich and poor has grown at an enormous rate with the development of capitalism, despite the emergence of the relatively new ‘middle class’. In the UK, for example, the end of 2018 saw the top 10% owning 45% of the national wealth, while the poorest 10% owned a mere 2%. It would be beyond naïve to believe the rhetoric that is so often pushed upon us - that COVID-19 affects everyone within those statistics in equal measure. Indeed, the COVID-19 mortality rate for the most deprived areas in England and Wales for March and early April was found to be 55.1 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 25.3 deaths per 100,000 in the least deprived areas.

To put it simply, we are not ‘in the same boat’ in the vast ocean that is this health crisis. The message which we are fed by politicians, celebrities, and other wealthy figures - that COVID-19 does not care about anyone’s wealth or status - has a sinister underside when properly examined. It seeks to gloss over the experiences of lower-income individuals and families with a poorly-executed stab at relatability. It is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for governments internationally, taking the pressure off of leaders to make provisions for their people by dismissing the situation as one that is indiscriminate and out of their control. It is not convincing. 

Of course, members of all classes have been negatively impacted by the virus, and may even have lost loved ones over the past few months. With that being said, I think we have to look at the fundamental differences in lockdown experiences between rich and poor. Living in Ireland, I have sought to take a closer look at the situation in my own country. Here, one in every seven people lives below the poverty line. Ireland’s housing crisis means that, as of May 2020, there are about 8,876 homeless people across the country, a figure which includes children. Although some restrictions are beginning to be eased, the past few months have been a period of social distancing and quarantining in order to reduce the number of active COVID cases. Relatively speaking, this has been made easy for the majority of people by virtue of adequate shelter. It is far easier and more comfortable to keep your distance from others when you have somewhere to live. 

After some research, it became obvious that Ireland’s homeless population was largely ignored when lockdown restrictions were first imposed. In an interview with the Irish Times, homeless Dublin man Ray Halpin gave an insight into the early days of the pandemic whilst living communally in a hostel in the city. While schools, universities and workplaces were shutting down, who was looking after the health needs of rough sleepers or emergency hostel residents? According to Halpin, many of his fellow hostel residents showed symptoms of the virus, but were reluctant to speak up for fear of being kicked out and left without shelter. The protection of vulnerable homeless citizens was left to the charities running hostels and other services while the government looked on and did nothing.

While the emergency accommodation that was eventually provided for Dublin’s homeless population may have been a step up from dealing with the virus in busy hostel settings, it’s a far cry from the ‘same boat’ that we hear spoken of. Dealing with a period of isolation in a hotel room or single-occupancy room is, obviously, not the same as doing so in a house or multi-million euro mansion. 

Another group that must not be forgotten about at this time is essential workers. Unfortunately, it appears to have taken a pandemic to highlight the importance of the work done by this group of people, a group which is so often underpaid and overworked. Ironically, these are the very people who tend to find themselves on the receiving end of scorn from higher-earning individuals. Many essential workers rely on this income for survival, and so have little choice but to risk their health by entering the workplace for a day’s labour. In countries such as the USA, where those who had lost their jobs received a small once-off COVID payment, getting back to work was a necessity in order to afford bills, rent and other essentials. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 'men working in the lowest skilled occupations had the highest rate of death involving COVID-19, with 21.4 deaths per 100,000', compared with the same age and sex in England and Wales. 

Furthermore, the issue extends past class alone, and into the region of race and ethnicity. The ONS states that 'Black males are 4.2 times more likely to die from a COVID-19-related death and Black females are 4.3 times more likely than White ethnicity males and females' in England and Wales, and that those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani, Indian, and mixed ethnicities had a 'statistically significant raised risk' of a COVID-19-related death compared to their White counterparts. Race and ethnicity cannot be separated from the issue of socio-economic standing, however, as analysis has found that nonwhite workers make up 16 percent of all key workers in Britain, which is 'a larger proportion than their share in the overall workforce'. 

Knowing this, it’s difficult to understand the sentiment of everyone being on a level playing field, with disproportionately wealthy figures who do not have to undertake any significant risk to make a living (or to simply survive). Seeing videos of rich celebrities singing along to John Lennon while looking sympathetically towards the camera seems, for want of a better phrase, like a bit of a kick in the teeth. 

The virus itself may not be discriminatory, but circumstances are. If we were truly ‘all in this together’ then, yes, Bill Gates might be just as likely to contract COVID as the till worker in your local corner shop. In reality, this is not the case. What we need to realise is that circumstance impacts the likelihood of exposure which, in turn, impacts the likelihood of contraction. Nobody is immune to the devastating effects of the virus, but pretending that everyone is equally affected by this emergency is both harmful and offensively dismissive.  

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