All in this together? Health inequalities and Covid-19 – By Taiwo Owatemi

The Covid-19 pandemic has been deeply unsettling and universally upsetting. Every community and social group has been affected and disrupted. However, the release of ONS figures on Coronavirus deaths at the start of May tell a terrifying story about health inequalities in the UK.  

What the ONS figures clearly show is that people facing the greatest deprivation are experiencing a higher risk of exposure to Covid-19 and existing poor health puts them at risk of more severe outcomes if they contract the virus. Perhaps most shocking though is that the figures appear to show that members of the African-Caribbean community are four times more likely to succumb to coronavirus than their white friends, colleagues and neighbours. 

Sadly, these gross disparities between the health outcomes of different communities with Coronavirus reflect my experience as a community campaigner, an NHS worker, and now an MP. Indeed, in my latest role as an MP I have repeatedly confronted the way in which health inequalities can dramatically worsen people’s life chances.

Even before the current pandemic, Coventry has been sadly marked by existing inequalities in health outcomes shown time and time again by all available data. Statistics from Public Health England have shown that men born in the most deprived areas of the city can face as much as a ten year gap in their life expectancy when compared to men born in more affluent areas. In my constituency the life expectancy of a man born in Spon End is 72 whilst a short bus journey later on the Allesley Old Road it is 79. 

The arrival of Covid-19 has of course thrown the above into even sharper relief. The structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities means that disadvantaged communities face extra difficulties when being confronted by Covid-19. For this reason, I am grateful to be given the opportunity to join Liam Byrne MP’s taskforce on the subject. I hope that work done by this taskforce gives us a greater insight even beyond the current pandemic.  

One dimension I don’t think currently gets enough attention though is the way that economic disadvantage, often faced by many of the above groups, can dramatically increase people’s likelihood of coming into contact and suffering with coronavirus. As I have been disturbed to learn from my casework, people in these groups appear to be more likely to have been in a position where they had to carry on working –  sometimes in dangerous work places – or have had difficulty accessing the job retention scheme.

There is also the spectre of the long-term economic impact of Covid-19. The aftershocks, caused by the unwillingness of the Tory Government to adequately safeguard the economy during the pandemic, could worsen the economic deprivation. In a worst-case scenario, there could be waves of evictions and job losses  Covid-19 presents us with many daunting challenges. The challenge of addressing health inequalities is just one of them, but it is one that could dramatically improve the lives of millions across the UK. We may never be able to stop viruses or the pandemics from spreading, but we can begin to tackle the disparities that lead to such different outcomes. The challenge going forward is to create a society where a person’s postcode, occupation or skin colour has no impact on their health outcomes.

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