The response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the emergency legislation powers introduced to tackle it, from many leading figures working to advance equality and represent marginalised groups, makes for concerning reading.
The analysis and data are still developing, but there are increasing reports that some groups are being hit harder by the pandemic than others. For example, in addition to the impact on older and disabled people, it is being reported that the illness seems to affect ethnic minority communities more severely.
The Race Equality Foundation explains that black and ethnic minority people have higher rates of conditions associated with COVID-19 fatalities, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and Sickle Cell Disease – and are overrepresented in institutional settings, such as prisons, mental health inpatient units and homeless accommodation, which increases their risk of contracting the illness.
Greater exposure also comes from the high numbers of ethnic minority staff in key worker roles, such as working in the NHS, shops and public transport. Higher rates of poverty and housing deprivation, especially amongst Gypsy Roma Traveller (GRT) and Black African households, is likely to deepen worse health outcomes and longer-term financial hardship. Runnymede Trust agrees ethnic minority groups in Britain will be less likely to weather the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis due to higher rates of poverty and unemployment, or employment in low skilled, low paid occupations with precarious contracts.
It appears the epidemic exploits gender disparities too. While it appears men may be suffering more from the illness itself, women are in more precarious social situations and are likely to experience long-term impacts of the global crisis. The Women’s Budget Group reports that there are over three million people in jobs at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the UK, and 77% of them are women. Over a million of these workers are low paid – 98% of those are women, and many will not qualify for sick pay should they get ill.
Experts across groups who campaign for better lives for minority groups have sought to highlight how the pandemic has revealed the existing inequalities and fragility in the health, housing and finances of many in society. People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable due to prevalent health conditions and lack of appropriate housing. Trans communities, who were already experiencing a mental health crisis and issues accessing healthcare, will have long-awaited gender-affirming medical support and procedures postponed.
Of grave concern to many is how the emergency legislation and overall impact of the pandemic may interrupt vital care services for disabled children and adults. Mencap fears that the likely staff shortages, fewer inspections, closed services and restricted family visits could equate to increased restrictive practice, overmedication, poor support and increased admissions.
Organisations are concerned about the possible human rights implications of the Government’s emergency powers and, Amnesty International has, for example, called for checks to ensure they are proportionate, temporary, regularly scrutinised and respectful of human rights.
Worryingly, there will likely be a knock-on effect for vital charities and voluntary organisations, whose income will be severely challenged as fundraising events get cancelled – right at the time that the most vulnerable in society will need their support more than ever.
Pandemics act on social fault lines. Existing fractures, resulting from systemic inequalities which have not been addressed, have a likelihood of deepening further. Our understanding of the impact the pandemic will have on the lives of marginalised communities will expand as the situation develops. However, the concerns and advice already raised by equality experts, and those with lived experience should be listened to and acted upon by those in positions of power to safeguard against any additional, avoidable, suffering.
Emma Lawrence, is Senior Equality and Diversity Policy Officer at The Nursing and Midwifery Council where she creates EDI solutions to embed inclusion, advise on equality legislation and promote diversity for the regulator of all 700,000 nurses and midwives across the UK.