Last month Boris Johnson claimed “it’s humanity against the virus – we are in this together”. The path of the pandemic shows we are not. In deprived areas of England and Wales people are dying from Covid-19 at more than twice the rate than in affluent areas. The disease disproportionately infects and kills black and minority ethnic people, revealing a racial pandemic within the viral pandemic. The reason for this is that Britain is an extremely unequal place. There’s a social gradient in health which means that even in normal times the poor die earlier than the rich. There is also a “weathering” effect where poor health results from a lifetime of discrimination. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted and amplified such inequalities with deadly results.
Ministers prefer to talk about the vulnerability to coronavirus in terms of biology rather than society. That is understandable given that a decade of Tory government has not reduced health inequalities but exacerbated them. If people live in poorer areas they will have councils struggling with fewer resources and find themselves with shorter, less empathetic GP consultations. They won’t be as shielded from the virus as those who live in well-heeled parts of the country. If people have low-paying work that can’t be done remotely, have to take public transport to get to frontline jobs, or live in crowded houses, they do not have the same fighting chance as those higher up the social scale. The disease knows where to find the weakest links.
Pandemics are not “great equalisers” impacting rich and poor alike. Their effects will be shaped by the policies that reinforce the divisions in society. There has been no national strategy to tackle health inequalities because ministers do not want to acknowledge that these disparities exist. Similarly, that structural racism plays a part in the severity of coronavirus infection is not something ministers want to hear, because they do not want to act. They prefer sermons about how the virus does not discriminate between individuals. Their response to official studies that reveal otherwise is to bury them.
Mr Johnson continues with policies and statements that contribute to the vilification of minority groups while feigning concern that they are being marginalised. Perhaps the prime minister sows seeds of division because he calculates that he can profit from them politically. This strategy of scapegoating migrants was honed by the Vote Leave campaign, whose main players now sit in Downing Street. While Priti Patel, the home secretary, last week offered apologies after the BBC’s dramatisation of the real-life story of wrongful detention and threatened deportation of a British black man, the policies that caused the Windrush scandal have never been repealed, and she has made no commitment to reverse them. In a similar manner, ministers know that people in unstable jobs and without access to adequate sick pay face increased risk of poor health but are fighting a legal case brought by a trade union over such discriminatory employment protections.
Covid-19 may be new, but the inequities it gives rise to are not. If we want to prevent these from recurring then the conditions that heighten the health risks must be tackled. The pandemic shows that our fates are interconnected but also that divisions unfairly leave the most vulnerable to bear the greatest human loss. Mr Johnson was relaxed about poverty and race because he thought the voters were too. Ever the glib opportunist, his levelling-up agenda has been unmasked as austerity in disguise. Coronavirus has put the social question back into the centre of politics, with the public rightly demanding an answer.