Coronavirus has exposed two sides of a deeply divided Britain
- Credit: AFP via Getty Images
The virus is no great leveller, says JAMES BALL. Instead, it is deepening our social divide.
Such sentiments are admirable – but their basis is false. Nothing about coronavirus is serving to equalise our society. Instead, in ways big and small, inevitable and unavoidable, accidental and the result of deliberate choices, it is entrenching existing inequalities.
Foremost – although certainly not alone – among those inequalities is that of class. Coronavirus has declared war on the working classes of the UK and the world. It is up to us as a society to fix the wrong inflicted by the virus and by our society's immune response to it.
Many of the excess harms inflicted by coronavirus on those in manual jobs or on lower incomes stem from simple structural factors in our society – but are then exacerbated by the choices we fall into with our response.
For instance, homeowners have been given the option by mortgage providers of taking a repayment holiday of several months – keeping their housing tenure secure, reducing their monthly outgoings by hundreds of pounds, and for the low cost of a small amount of extra interest on the total of their mortgage.
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A renter facing a similar shortfall of income during coronavirus has no such recourse – while (in theory at least) their landlord is barred from evicting them during the crisis, their rent arrears will stack up, even as their income continues to fall short. They are still liable to be charged penalties and interest.
Renters – who are on average markedly less financially secure than homeowners – are left in a ruinous position, and facing eviction when the crisis ends, even as their relatively affluent home-owning neighbours are specifically protected. The system really is rigged against them.
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This is hardly an isolated example. Self-employed workers, who earn less than their employed counterparts, have access to similar protection schemes as workers – in theory. But where workers should, in theory, not miss a pay packet if they are furloughed, their self-employed counterparts get nothing until the end of June.
Things are worse for staff in the hospitality industry, whose base rate of pay is typically topped up with what's known in the industry as 'tronc' – a payment based on service charges paid by diners – and tips paid by card. When furloughed, as huge numbers of workers in the sector are, their pay is only calculated from its low base pay.
Hospitality staff pay tax on their full income just like any other worker: tronc and card tips run through regular payroll systems. They work in one of the hardest-hit industries by the virus, and one not set to fully reopen until far later than others. But despite this, they get less back than other workers – many in far more comfortable positions than themselves.
The unfair burden placed on those in manual and often low-paying jobs isn't just financial – people in these jobs are in more danger of becoming sick with coronavirus, dying of it, or infecting their loved ones as they return from home.
While office workers can do their jobs from home, in relative safety, those in manual jobs – even those not in essential industries – are required to travel to their workplaces.
Even with everyone's best efforts, this routinely involves exposure to situations in which proper social distancing is impossible. Even good precautions can only get you so far.
Costs and risks extend beyond work, of course. Workers on lower incomes are more likely to rely on public transport, and to have longer journeys to and from work.
They have less space at home and are likely to share their accommodation with more people – not just increasing risk, but also increasing the stresses of lockdown. In cities like London, living on a low income dramatically reduces your chances of having easy access to outside space.
Lockdown means something very different to a small family in a large home with a garden than it does to a large family in a small fourth-floor flat. The experiences are neither equal nor equalising.
Analysis of the UK's death toll shows the inevitable results of these inequalities, compounding one another to place the people at their core in danger. While Coronavirus is far, far more dangerous to the retired than it is to those of working age – only around one in eight fatalities was in the latter group – the disparities among working age adults is stark.
Men working in 'low skilled elementary occupations' – a category including security guards, cleaners and some construction jobs – were more than three times likelier to die than men in professional occupations.
It should be notable that these jobs are not just low-paid work requiring people to leave the home, but also industries known for the casualisation of work – many people in such industries have no access to sick pay or similar, leaving them particularly vulnerable, as colleagues soldier on through illness and thus infect their workmates.
A similar pattern was borne out of the data for women, even though working age women were far less likely overall to die of coronavirus than men. Women in caring, leisure and service occupations had about the same risk from coronavirus as professional men – but this was still almost twice that of women in the professions.
The result, then, is that working class people, people in manual occupations, people in the service industries, people at the lower end of the income distribution – all closely related but not identical concepts – bear a higher financial, psychological and physiological burden as a result of coronavirus.
Neither the virus itself nor the response to it affects us equally. If some groups in our society are at a greater risk of death, are having to take greater risks to keep our shop shelves full, our relatives cared for, and our economy from total ruin, are having to endure greater hardships through the lockdown, and are taking a bigger financial hit too – shouldn't we recognise that?
Risk is supposed to come alongside reward. Hard work and sacrifice is supposed to be rewarded. To pretend coronavirus is an equaliser would have us skip the question of what we should do next.
We certainly didn't handle the last crisis correctly. Those at the 'top' of our society – the highest earners in the financial sector, and the politicians who enabled them – failed us entirely, creating an economic crisis on a global scale, which required a huge rescue operation.
The bill was then handed to the people who were blameless, through austerity and through pay restraint.
Real wages in the UK for most workers are still below their 2007 levels – we have had more than a decade of economic pain and stagnation, its impacts disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable.
After a decade of punishment, coronavirus has brought still more trials for low-paid workers. We cannot allow the injustice of letting them bear the brunt of this 'recovery', too.
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