The Tories are basking in the success of the UK’s vaccination programme, and the prospects of an economic rebound. But the coronavirus crisis will leave deep scars on working-class communities. Only bold socialist policies can offer a solution.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we were told that ‘the virus doesn’t discriminate’. But the harsh reality is that if you’re working class and poor, you’re far more likely to catch – and die from – COVID-19 than if you’re wealthy.
During the January peak, the virus was circulating at a rate 50% higher in the poorest areas of the UK compared to the richest. In addition, people from BAME backgrounds were twice as likely as white people to contract the virus and die.
These inequalities are not new, however, but existed long before the pandemic. They are a graphic reminder of how capitalism functions: whilst the rich get richer, the poorest are left to suffer and die.
For example, between 2015-17, the Kings Fund found that men and women living in the most deprived areas of the UK were expected to live 9.4 and 7.4 years fewer, respectively, than those in the wealthiest areas.
Likewise, people from the most deprived areas were found to have a 60% higher prevalence of chronic illnesses. This level of health inequality has been magnified by the pandemic, as the consequences of poverty took their toll.
Whilst the richest could typically work from the comfort of a spacious home, the poorest had no option but to continue to work – typically with minimal safety provisions made by the bosses. Overcrowded housing and transport further increased the risk of catching COVID for the country’s poorest.
The ‘COVID Triangle’
Take for example the ‘COVID Triangle’ of the east London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, and Newham.
During the peak of the second wave in January, these boroughs – among the poorest in London – were competing for the highest rate of infections in the whole country.
At one point, one in 16 people in the borough of Barking and Dagenham were thought to be infected.
None of this should come as a surprise. At the time the pandemic hit, child poverty in Newham was as high as 67%, unemployment was at 14%, and the level of household overcrowding was the worst in Britain.
As a result, Newham saw the highest age-standardised mortality rate for the whole of England and Wales during March and April 2020, at 144.3 deaths per 100,000. By contrast, some richer areas had only 25 deaths per 100,000.
As Manish Shah – a pharmacist working in Dagenham – explained to the Financial Times: “Jobs in these areas [the ‘COVID Triangle’] largely fall into two categories — frontline workers and others in more insecure employment.”
Uber drivers showing COVID symptoms told Shah that they “just did not want to get a test or go to the doctor because they knew they could not afford to isolate.”
“Others that worked in takeaway restaurants told me: ‘I have to go into work, otherwise they will find someone else and I won’t have a job.’”
Here the cold logic of the market is plain to see: either stay safe from the virus, but face destitution; or keep working to pay the bills, but risk death and potentially infecting others.
Whilst COVID-19 may appear on their death certificates, in reality millions of workers worldwide were killed by capitalism – a system that prioritises the profits of a few above all else.
On top of all this, many of the three million or more workers on precarious zero-hour contracts simply cannot afford to miss a shift in order to attend their vaccine appointments.
Furthermore, it will be the working class and the most vulnerable in society who will continue to suffer the impact of the COVID crisis in the years ahead: as the backlog in the resource-starved NHS is cleared; as further austerity is implemented to ‘balance the books’; and as state support is withdrawn and job losses mount.
This is why we call for:
- An end to the gig economy – secure jobs for all with a proper living wage.
- An end to overcrowded housing – for a mass programme of council house building and seizure of empty properties.
- For safe work, or full pay on a living wage. Full sick pay for all required to self-isolate or attend vaccine appointments.