The COVID-19 pandemic has already seen inequalities in Britain widen dramatically — based on demographics like wealth, gender, race, and more.
But as we start to emerge from the eye of the storm, the aftermath is still muddied by uncertainty. While the threat of a global recession lingers — with the UK likely to be impacted more signifantly than other high-income countries — the question remains: how much worse can this thing get?
A report released on Thursday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), an influential UK research organisation, has warned that inequality is on course to widen even further. But it insists that outcome is not inevitable — and action needs to be taken to prevent it right away.
The report highlighted that the pandemic, unsurprisingly, threatens vulnerable groups the most. But with timely government intervention in spheres such as training, small business support, and education, the IFS says that there is some hope to reverse the worst of the damage.
Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, an independent charitable trust to advance social well-being, the report was published as part of a 5-year report into inequality, poverty, and living standards in the UK called the “IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities”.
"The crisis has laid bare existing inequalities and risks exacerbating them, but some of its legacies might also provide opportunities,” said Robert Joyce, author of the report and deputy director at the IFS. “Government will need to be on the front foot in laying the groundwork for a strong and inclusive recovery even while still dealing with the immediate crisis.”
“If, for example, we can limit now the severity of career disruption, the widening of health and educational inequalities, or the extent to which small firms that had a productive future are squeezed out by larger established competitors, policy’s job in years to come will be much less difficult than if it is trying to limit or undo the damage,” he added.
Here are the specific areas of inequality that the IFS has warned are most at risk, across race, class, age, and more.
It's already been highlighted in reports from across the UK that the poorest in our society are more likely to die of COVID-19.
But moreover, low earners are also more likely to have worked in sectors that have been shut down since lockdown began in March — according to the Resolution Foundation, one in four of the lowest-paid people in the UK are in sectors that have been forced into temporary closure. And while the furlough scheme is set to end in October, there is little guarantee that industries will be able to immediately return to normal. Jobs are far from safe and unemployment beckons.
In the bigger picture, the IFS has emphasised that as reliance on technology increases, middle class workers who can work from home with greater ease are more likely to be protected, leaving those without such privileges in danger of being left behind.
New analysis of the unequal effects of Covid-19 from @theifs Deaton Review funded by @NuffieldFoundhttps://t.co/6IvYL2W1s8— Paul Johnson (@PJTheEconomist) June 11, 2020
Young, female, poorly paid and ethnic minority workers more likely to be in locked down sectors pic.twitter.com/CGADiDbSVq
On June 2, a report from Public Health England (PHE) was published that concluded that death rates from COVID-19 were disproportionately higher in England among Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) groups.
But in the context of protests against racial injustice spreading across the world, the report was condemned for offering no solutions to protect BAME groups. For example, people of Bangladeshi background in the UK have double the death rate faced by white Britons, yet the report failed to set out steps to urgently address the issue.
The IFS report examines this, warning too that the most at-risk ethnic groups are also the most likely to work in sectors recently locked down. Furthermore, Black communities are both disproportionately in key worker occupations while also contracting the virus at far higher rates than their white counterparts.
Global recessions historically hurt young people more than most — and with sectors like hospitality under more pressure than ever, it appears a pandemic-fuelled financial crash might create a perfect storm for young people with fewer prospects and increased insecurity.
While many universities are on the brink of bankruptcy, the IFS reports that recent graduates face the “toughest labour market in more than a generation.”
It revealed that workers under the age of 25 are twice as likely as people aged 25 and over to work in a sector that has been shut down by the pandemic. Indeed, the Resolution Foundation has previously reported that almost two in five people aged 16 to 24 in employment before the pandemic worked in a sector that has since been shutdown.
Already, young people have had to deal with the lingering financial hardship from the 2008 financial crash and the trebling of tuition fees. But the IFS has warned that a whole generation could now get set back even further.
The #COVID19 crisis has brought existing inequalities to the fore - and risks exacerbating them.— IFS (@TheIFS) June 11, 2020
Our response will determine whether the recovery is inclusive, or entrenches and widens social divisions.
New research funded by @NuffieldFound: https://t.co/eZDxjjL86qpic.twitter.com/TeIUHDbgfE
The poorest people in our society aren’t just more likely to be hit harder economically by the fallout from the pandemic, but are more likely to have poorer health outcomes too.
The IFS highlights the gaps in death rates between richer and poorer neighbourhoods in Britain as proof that health inequality is widening. It’s also evident in differences between white and ethnic minority communities.
And it’s not just the virus: the IFS report points to how unemployment that affects the lowest skilled people in a workforce can have long-term negative effects on other health outcomes too. For example, men from the poorest neighbourhoods in the US could expect to die 15 years younger on average than men from the richest areas due to health inequality.
Children home from school and living rooms transformed into temporary offices have resulted in the reinforcement of traditional gender roles, with the IFS reporting that mothers have assumed more childcare and housework responsibilities than fathers.
There’s sexist inequalities in health too: although men are more likely to die from the virus, women are often more exposed to it. Women are more than twice as likely than men to be among the 8.6 million people identified as key workers, according to the Resolution Foundation, while on mental health, women are taking on more stress and anxiety — 61% said they found it harder to stay positive everyday, compared with 47% of men.
The IFS has warned that the gender divide could harm career prospects for women, while unravelling much of the progress that’s been made to close the gender pay gap.
Although almost all children and teenagers have been forced to learn from home as schools have shut across the country, there’s a divide in the effectiveness of remote education, depending on your socioeconomic status.
The report from the IFS states that 55% of families from the richest backgrounds report schools in the state sector providing online classes, while just 40% from the poorest families have said the same.
There are also issues of technology: more affluent families might have multiple electronic devices for different children and might benefit from private tutoring. But the least affluent might have just one computer shared between an entire family, or nothing at all.
With pupils set to miss six months’ worth of lessons, this could create a black hole in social mobility in education. Students from wealthier backgrounds have more opportunities to catch up. But the less fortunate could get left in the dark.
Join the movement to help combat the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on marginalised communities — including people of colour, those living in extreme poverty, and others facing discrimination — by taking action here to support the Global Goal: Unite for Our Future campaign. For more information on COVID-19, the efforts to combat it, and how it impacts vulnerable communities around the world, read our coverage of the pandemic here.