Coronavirus has highlighted and widened existing inequalities, Sarah George explains the choice we now face between repeating mistakes of the past, or learning from them, as we plan our recovery.
“[Coronavirus] is not a great leveler, the consequences of which everyone – rich or poor – suffers the same,” BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis told viewers on April 8th.
“This is a myth that needs debunking. Those on the front line right now… are disproportionately the lower-paid members of our workforce… Those in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown tougher. Those in manual jobs are unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health.”
Her comments stood in stark contrast to the recent rhetoric of UK Government ministers and of many of the nation’s biggest businesses, which had been centered around pulling together against a common foe in order to “fight” and “defeat” it. While such rhetoric has been praised as spirited, resolute and reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s wartime approach, Maitlis’ sentiments and conviction struck a chord; her speech was viewed more than 2.5 million times within 24 hours, despite the fact that Newsnight did not share the clip on any of its social media channels.
Maitlis’ speech alone did not change local, national and international discourse overnight. However, over the past few weeks, columns stating that the fact that no-one has lived through anything like the pandemic before, and that everyone’s lives must be disrupted in fairly equal measure, have petered out. In their place have come studies and opinion pieces covering how Coronavirus did not break social and economic systems, but rather highlight and widen existing cracks.
The pandemic has exposed the extent of social inequalities in the UK
In the UK specifically, such cracks include the gulf between White British and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Official figures reveal that BAME people and one-third of all critical cases of coronavirus despite accounting for around 15% of the population. When assessing deaths per 100,000 of the population, Indian people were found to be 1.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts, rising to twice as likely for black communities. Research is underway as to how great a role discrepancies in living conditions and occupation play in this disturbing trend.
Wealth inequality has also been pushed into the spotlight. While celebrities flocked to pay around £400 for private tests, the Government has continually fallen short on commitments to test frontline health workers such as nurses (average salary £24,864), junior doctors (base salary £23,000) and carers (average hourly rate £8.23). Of the 2.1 million Brits claiming unemployment benefit in April, young and low-paid workers were the most over-represented. Ultimately, death rates in England and Wales’ poorest communities are typically around twice as high as in the wealthiest.
We already knew people and places were being left behind
Back in 2018, UKSSD’s landmark Measuring up report tracked, for the first time, the UK Government’s progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals across each of the framework’s 169 targets and 230 indicators that were relevant domestically. It revealed good policy coverage in progress in several areas, but ultimately that the most vulnerable people and places were both missing out on the positive benefits of key developments and feeling the negative benefits of poor progress elsewhere the hardest. This echoed the assertations of the countless other individuals and organisations that the Global Goals can never be achieved in full without the inclusion of all facets of society.
Moreover, in conducting research for Measuring up, the UKSSD team found numerous information gaps of concern, including a lack of data on how the UK’s actions are impacting other countries’ SDG-related progress. Now, headlines are telling of how governments and corporations in the west have ultimately failed to protect their global supply chains against pandemic shockwaves. Worker shortages in agriculture are leading to the drafting-in of low-paid workers from aboard, against travel and social distancing advice, while garment suppliers are dealing with the twin challenges of not being paid in full for all orders, and of weighing up the economic and health impacts of factory closures. Both of these sectors were notably already classed as high-risk for human rights failings.
This is not to say that the Government is unanimously failing on all fronts or that it singlehandedly caused and must singlehandedly solve these issues. On the former, policy support and progress on issues including health and wellbeing (SDG 3) and education (SDG 4) was found to be strong.
The importance of collaboration
Good performance was also proven against SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) – the cornerstone to achieving the goals across the board. Measuring up revealed the links between each of the SDGs, highlighting the importance of collaboration. This collaboration, the study concluded, will need to take many forms: between Ministers and multi-stakeholder forums; between businesses in the same sectors; between businesses across different sectors; between charities and businesses; between local authorities and their residents; even between individuals. Such varied forms of meaningful collaboration were being forged increasingly even pre-pandemic, and now, against a backdrop of uncertainty (economic and otherwise) in which people are seeking clarity, efficiency and a people-centred approach, are drawing increasing support. The odds of organisations outside of Government working jointly in relief, recovery and resilience planning are good; but the question is whether the SDGs will be embedded in these plans, as will be necessary to ensure they are achieved by their 2030 deadline.
As Maitlis concluded in her viral Newsnight speech, we need to “ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop inequality becoming even more stark”.
Thankfully, many are already posing those questions. Thought leaders are penning their visions for a new normal which prioritises people and planet over profit, inclusive long-term sustainable development over short-term gains which benefit a select few. The UN’s six-point policy briefing on embedding social justice and climate action in national recovery plans is clear and can be, and has gained the support of dozens of the world’s largest and most influential businesses through initiatives such as We Mean Business Coalition’s ‘Build Back Better’.
The challenge now is implementing holistic actions at the pace and scale needed to turn visions of a more sustainable future into reality; the very process the SDGs were first designed to assist. Recovery from the 2008 financial crash have been broadly written down as a missed opportunity to change systems that continually feed social inequalities and nature degradation. We now have a choice: repeat these historical mistakes, or learn from them.
Sarah George is a reporter and journalist.