Report shines ‘searing light’ on Covid-19

Class and race are at the heart of the pandemic’s most likely victims

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As Unite had long suspected class and race are the biggest factors in determining those that have died or been taken ill by the Covid-19 pandemic – now an undeniable fact borne out the government’s experts own report.

The Public Health England (PHE) report Disparities in the risk and outcomes of Covid-19 issued earlier this week, highlighted those groups that had been hardest hit by the virus in terms of mortality.

The PHE report found that those parts of UK society most affected included the elderly, Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAEM) communities generally – and in particular BAEM NHS staff on the frontline, those with underlying conditions, such as diabetes and dementia, those living in care homes, and those from deprived communities.

Essentially those who are the most vulnerable are the oldest, the poorest, and those with the highest exposure to the virus and the public.

Unite has called for a raft of policies to tackle the ‘systemic failures’ that has led to the disproportionate death toll amongst the BAEM communities and also the poorest groups in society.

“This report shines a searing light that reveals the pandemic in the UK is intrinsically linked disproportionately to class and race,” commented Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail.

“These wide disparities are detailed in this data and point to age, race and income and accompanying health inequalities as key determinants as to whom has been the worst affected by Covid-19.

“This has been amplified among those in undervalued occupations and jobs where zero hours’ contracts and precarious employment are the norm.

“Working hard to provide for your families is no defence against Covid-19 for these groups – these systemic failures need to be tackled urgently and that work should start now,” she said.

Desperate families

The pandemic has sparked a huge demand for emergency food supplies, with desperate families not having anywhere else to turn to meet their most basic needs.

The Trussell Trust, the largest network of food banks in the UK, reported in April that it faced its busiest ever period in its history, with 81 per cent more emergency food parcels handed out in the first two weeks of March.

Likewise, the Independent Food Aid Network reported a massive increase in demand for its food parcels, up 59 per cent between February and March – 17 times more than the same period last year.

A number of food bank networks and organisations such as the Child Action Poverty Group (CPAG) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have jointly expressed alarm over the desperate situation a rising number of families have found themselves in amid the Covid-19 epidemic.

The organisations have highlighted that families with children face the greatest threat of destitution.

Unite Community Norfolk branch secretary Brian Green is no stranger to the desperation families with children face – even before the coronavirus epidemic hit.

He and his Unite Community branch have for the last three years run a holiday hunger project in Norwich where they provide hundreds of packed lunches for children and families in need during the school holidays with support from other local organisations like the Phoenix Community Centre. All children accompanied by parents have been welcomed, no questions asked.

While demand for the Unite Community lunches has always been significant, the Easter holidays in April saw a massive queue of families with children coming to collect the lunches as well as weekend hampers of food and other essential items the project now provides.

Brian noted that the last few weeks has been exceptionally hard on families and said he questioned whether food parcels being delivered by councils amid the coronavirus crisis were fit for purpose for many families.

“Individual families have to request the council-provided food parcels – this can be a very challenging experience for those who do not have internet access, or who do not want to be seen to be asking for food.

“We believe that anonymity is essential in reaching out to communities and families who fall through the cracks and gaining their trust. That’s why our project is set up the way it is – we don’t ask any questions.”

There is no doubt that poverty – the legacy of the years of Conservative governments’ obsession with austerity and the ‘punishment’ of the poor and disabled is at the heart of the vulnerability and fragility this nation now faces.

‘Poverty – parent of disease’

“Poverty is the parent of disease and Covid-19 has been a willing accomplice in this respect,” believes Gail Cartmail and Unite general secretary Len McCluskey agrees.

Len McCluskey told Tribune magazine last month that the coronavirus crisis had “exposed deep faults in how our country works” and that “the public can see that in this time of maximum economic and health strife it is our lowly paid key workers, not the super-rich, who are leading this country through this crisis.”

Responding to the poll’s findings, that those most affected were poor, in low-paid work, from BAEM communities, McCluskey said, “It’s the nurses, bus drivers, refuse collectors, food workers and delivery drivers and so many more across the economy who have put their lives on the line to serve the public, often without adequate safety equipment. The very least they deserve now is income and job security.”

“Once this pandemic has passed, we need to look as a country anew to how we can recalibrate economic and social policies to create a fairer society,” said Gail Cartmail.

“All these issues must be investigated in depth when the post-pandemic public inquiry takes place, which will be needed in the interests of accountability, openness and transparency.”

She continued, “No one policy size fits all, but such an agenda should include ethnically sensitive risk assessments and income guarantees for workers who through ‘test, track and trace’ would otherwise be reliant on statutory sick pay (SSP), while in isolation.

“The Real Living Wage should be the basic minimum for those in ‘at risk’ occupations as an interim measure, with a commitment to sectoral bargaining for care workers and the guarantee of the necessary funding.

“All these measures are achievable with government support. If austerity is over, as ministers claim it is, the best defence against the inequalities which the report exposes is to narrow the income gap and invest in public services with priority to social care,” she added.

“The British people utterly reject another round of austerity, and see proper funding for the NHS as their number one concern,” commented Len McCluskey.

“The best way to fund the NHS and our public services is through a strong UK manufacturing base, paying decent wages, supporting the crumbling service economy and generating income for the Treasury. With our manufacturing sector under huge attack from the virus and its fallout, we urgently need government to engage with us on renewing and reviving this vital sector.

‘Hungry for change’

“This is a country hungry for change, hungry for a new deal for working people. My call to the government is to read the mood of the nation and work with us to set forth an ambitious plan to deliver just financial rewards and stability for the real wealth creators of this country, working people.”

And what of the future? As the government eases lockdown, and the job retention scheme and other wage subsidies eventually taper out, what will become of the millions of families that have relied on this financial help?

In Norwich, Brian Green is worried. “The summer holidays will be so challenging,” he told UNITElive. “The government is determined to re-open the economy and in so doing invite a second wave of the virus. At the same time they have suggested they will not be extending the support people need to get through this crisis. It’s very worrying – our summer holidays project will be a huge undertaking.”

Compiled by Amanda Campbell, @amanda_unite

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