Crisis breeds opportunity. Yet at the time of a public health emergency there is the risk that discussions about equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) might seem secondary or something to add to the agenda once the crisis has passed. However, while nobody would wish to distract from the main focus of fighting the pandemic, we need to use the present moment to also imagine the society we want to inhabit once the dust has settled.
Things we were told were impossible have become possible. In a matter of days, the UK government has guaranteed up to 80% of employees’ salaries to avoid mass redundancies, waived NHS parking charges, banned the eviction of tenants in rented accommodation, devised a system to ensure families receive meals or vouchers to feed children on free school meals, re-instated telemedicine for early abortion care, and requested that all local authorities provide rough sleepers with accommodation.
Alongside this necessary rush of state interventions, the UK has also faced an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties. The Coronavirus Act 2020 provides the police with enforcement powers to ensure that people only leave their homes for specific reasons including essential work, exercise and the purchase of groceries or medicine. This is just one example of how life has radically changed for everyone in a matter of weeks.
This colossal exertion of state power invites a catalogue of EDI challenges that, without appropriate scrutiny, risk embedding new ways of living and working that further disadvantage minority and marginalised groups. We cannot wait for the crisis to pass before we apply an EDI lens to these new ways of living and working. By then it will be too late. Those in existing positions of power are already maneuvering to seize the moment and ride the waves of disaster capitalism to their own advantage. We will only achieve a more equitable and humane society if we take action now to ensure what lies ahead is better than what came before.
We cannot wait for the crisis to pass before we apply an EDI lens to these new ways of living and working. By then it will be too late.
This review considers early signs of how COVID-19 has impacted people with different identity characteristics in unequal ways and uses the process of an Equality Impact Assessment to document these effects. An Equality Impact Assessment is a process to help ensure that a new or revised policy, practice or service does not discriminate against any disadvantaged or vulnerable people. It is an approach commonly followed by large institutions — such as local authorities, health boards and universities — and usually considers the nine protected characteristics listed in the 2010 Equality Act:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
This approach requires the person completing the Equality Impact Assessment to consider potential impacts on specific identity characteristics and put in place actions to mitigate any negative outcomes. I will also use the protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act to frame this review while acknowledging that this approach dilutes the importance of socio-economic factors, omits other key identity characteristics and discourages a genuinely intersectional approach to impacts and EDI. This review does not currently consider the protected characteristics of ‘marriage and civil partnership’ and ‘pregnancy and maternity’, though they may be added at a later date.
The inequalities presented in this review are only a sliver of the problems people currently face and the challenges that lie ahead. We are in the early days of this crisis and the full extent of how COVID-19 will impact different identity groups is not yet known. What follows is by no means exhaustive and, as the pandemic develops, I may add to this review and unpack existing themes in more detail.
COVID-19 has impacted younger and older people in different ways. Although most younger people face less health risks from COVID-19 than the general population, they are likely to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic fall-out. Brian Findlay’s article One million Britons will be on zero-hour contracts by end of 2020 shares recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which shows that one-third of people on zero-hours contracts were aged between 16 and 24. Although recent proposals from the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer may provide some support to people on zero-hour contracts, it is also likely that many will fall through the cracks due to problems in providing an evidence trail, the length of time in their current role, averaging their salary over a period of time or the likelihood that some will not receive economic support until June 2020.
COVID-19 has also impacted older people. Data from the ONS shows that almost 1 in 12 (8.1%) people in their 70s were working in 2019, and a further 53,000 people aged 80 or over were in some form of employment. This therefore poses questions as to what these workers were expected to do when all people aged 70 and over were deemed high-risk and instructed to remain at home. This grey area, being instructed to self-isolate yet not being sick, has undoubtedly created issues for older employees, many of whom rely on this additional income to supplement their pension.
In March 2020 a substantial proportion of the UK workforce rapidly transitioned from working in an office to working from home. Depending on the nature of the work delivered, employers’ technological savvy and previous attitudes to working from home, experiences of this transition differed across organisations. However, the rapid move to home working was based on a vision of a ‘model worker’ that was not disabled.
The pandemic forced many employers to throw everything in the air and hope pieces landed in a workable order. For some disabled employees, who had spent months or even years arguing for reasonable adjustments to establish ways of working that enabled them to undertake their role effectively, this transformation of working practices may roll-back progress and exclude people from being able to do their job.
The rapid move to home working was based on a vision of a ‘model worker’ that was not disabled.
Inclusion Scotland, a disabled people’s organisation based in Edinburgh, has published a briefing for MSPs in the Scottish Parliament on the Coronavirus Act 2020, which notes the ‘often unintended and negative consequences for disabled people’. The briefing highlights how the Act appears to remove the requirement for local authorities to conduct social care assessments for disabled people and how this ‘will lead to many disabled people receiving social care support that is inadequate to meet their needs, receiving care that is inappropriate or in inappropriate settings, or receiving no social care support at all’. These issues are also discussed in an investigative report by Karin Goodwin for The Ferret.
Inclusion Scotland’s briefing also identifies changes in legislation related to mental health, including the extension of measures such as detention or treatment orders and a reduction in safeguards, such as reports from a Mental Health Officer. The briefing notes, ‘people should not be subjected to compulsory detention or treatment simply because mental health services are not able to provide appropriate community based support’.
The Scottish Trans Alliance explains that the protected characteristic of gender reassignment covers those ‘who are proposing to undergo, currently undergoing or have undergone a process (or part of a process) of gender reassignment’. In relation to the Equality Act, Scottish Trans note that ‘it is not necessary for people to have any medical diagnosis or treatment to gain this protection; it is a personal process of moving away from one’s birth gender to one’s self-identified gender. A person remains protected, even if they decide not to proceed further with transitioning.’
There is a danger that health care providers might deem gender-affirming health care ‘non-essential’ during this pandemic. Likewise, for trans people with prescriptions for hormones there is a risk that GPs cannot administer injections or trans people cannot leave their homes due to self-isolation (Scottish Trans present helpful guidance that address these concerns). Although efforts have been made to assuage these fears, prior to the pandemic reaching the UK, BBC News reported how some trans people have started to self-medicate with hormones bought online from unregulated sources due to lengthy waiting times to access health services. COVID-19 will likely exacerbate this problem, putting the physical and mental health of trans people at risk.
Existing social inequalities in the areas of poverty, health, housing and employment will mean that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people are disproportionately impacted by the negative fall-out of this public health emergency.
Zubaida Haque, writing for the Runnymede Trust, has highlighted the differential impacts of COVID-19 on Black and ethnic minority groups in the UK. Haque draws attention to data that shows ethnic minority households are more likely to be overcrowded and multi-generational, compared to white British households. These differences are pertinent in regard to the spread of COVID-19 and highlight particular risks for BAME people who are elderly or have pre-existing health conditions.
Several UK newspapers have highlighted racist incidents that targeted Chinese people. In some cases, Chinese people were targeted while wearing face masks — a type of racism described as ‘maskaphobia’ in The Guardian. This issue was further complicated for international students, who faced issues related to the end of in-person university teaching and anxiety about whether to remain on a deserted campus or attempt to return to their home country.
Religion and belief
Little has been written about the specific impacts of COVID-19 on people with different religions and beliefs.
However, in the UK, there is some overlap between religion and belief and the protected characteristic of race. For example, according to the 2011 census in England and Wales, 92.2% of Muslims were Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME). This means that many of the issues related to poverty, health, housing and employment that disproportionately impact BAME people also disadvantage people of particular religions.
In the UK, restrictions on public gatherings has meant that people cannot congregate in churches, attend Friday prayers at their mosque or visit their synagogue, temple or other religious site. Several major religious festivals take place in April, including Easter, Passover and the Hindu festival of Rama Navami. This has required religious leaders to adopt innovative approaches to engaging with their communities. Outside of the UK, for example, Aljazeera has reported on how COVID-19 is changing the ways Muslims worship across the world.
It was evident early in the pandemic that COVID-19’s impact on the population would be gendered. From vertical and horizontal segregation in the labour market to the profile of public transport users, almost all aspects of this public health emergency are impacted by gender or have the potential to affect men and women in different ways.
Engender, a women’s organisation Scotland, has published a comprehensive account of the gendered impacts of COVID-19 on the lives on women and girls. The briefing highlights how the closure of nurseries and schools will mean that the bulk of caring responsibilities will fall upon women, who may need to juggle this responsibility alongside part or full-time employment. Engender presents data from the United Nations on women in heterosexual relationship that estimates they ‘do 2.6 times as much unpaid caregiving and domestic work as their heterosexual partners’. This issue is further compounded for lone parents, of whom 90% are women.
The briefing also identifies how the restriction of civil liberties and requirement to stay at home will negatively impact women. The UK Government’s mantra ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ is clear and convincing. Yet it ignores those for whom staying at home puts their life at risk. For women who experience domestic abuse, the requirement to self-isolate with partners and family member who are violent and abusive will likely create increased anxiety. Scottish Women’s Aid have published guidance for people who face this situation and run a helpline, email service and web chat for everyone with concerns about domestic abuse.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) people already face health inequalities, including those related to an increased prevalence of smokers and pre-existing health conditions, most notably HIV. These inequalities put some LGBTQ+ people at an increased health risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
LGBTQ+ people also face inequalities because of relationships with family. Ben Hunte, writing for BBC News, has documented the experience of LGBTQ+ people forced to return home to self-isolate with family opposed to their sexuality. COVID-19 has meant that employment opportunities have collapsed, in-person teaching at college or university has ended and some family members are in desperate need of care and support. This has required some LGBTQ+ people to go back into the closet or face hostility and abuse from family members. LGBT Foundation, which runs an advice helpline and email support, have reported receiving twice as many enquiries from LGBT people in need of support compared to the same period in 2019.
Among some older LGBTQ+ people, COVID-19 has also evoked memories of the HIV/AIDs pandemic. Although caution must be applied in drawing analogies between the two situations, both highlight the role of leadership in times of crisis. In the US, we have also witnessed President Trump describe COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ — a tactic reminiscent of the scapegoating that once labelled AIDs the ‘gay plague’.