In an emergency, the Socially Disadvantaged lose out

We are currently experiencing the outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus), which the World Health Organisation (WHO) has specified as being as a pandemic. We do not know its duration or even the eventual outcomes with regard to deaths and long lasting effects. In the midst the uncertainties, there are a few issues for which we can be sure of the consequences.

There is no doubt that we will all be affected one way or another. By the time that the pandemic has been brought under control, we would have all known someone who would have contracted the virus or even, unfortunately, have died from its effects.
The fact has to be encountered, however, is that the socially disadvantaged will be disproportionately affected, as is so often the case in natural disasters, and viral and bacterial outbreaks. It reinforces the disadvantages that are already present and, in fact, will make the situation harsher. The impoverished will be steeped into more poverty and the hungry will not feel their stomachs being filled.

It could be that it could take a generation or more to alleviate the worsening conditions in which people ‘at the bottom of the pile’ find themselves. That is just to get back to the position previous to the coronavirus outbreak, before they can think of bettering themselves and become socially mobile.

It is bad enough that many of those people who are socially disadvantaged already live in areas where the live expectancy is lower than more prosperous locations. Research has shown that there were 49 per cent more fatalities among 35-44 year olds in the north in 2015, and 29 per cent more fatalities for those aged 25-34 in the same period. Dying early (before reaching the age of 75 years) is 20 per cent more likely in the north than in the south. A stark rise in premature deaths among the middle-aged in the north began in the 1990s and has increased steadily since. Overall, from 1965-2015 there have been 1.2 million more early deaths in the north compared with the south.

One of the areas is in the foodbanks that so many who are the working poor have come to depend on. The sad fact is that they too will suffer as staff members and volunteers will experience the impact of the coronavirus, including the necessity of looking after family and friends who have contracted it. When people need to turn to the foodbanks to help them feed their families, there will not be to assist them in filling their bags with the required foodstuffs and to give them any additional help or signposting that is very useful.

The other impact on foodbanks is that there will be a shortage of donations, that a number of them have already started to experience. It can be explained partly in that people are too busy filling their own larders ‘in case’ they and/or others may have to self-isolate. The sort of food that is often required in the foodbanks are the non-perishable, which are the very items that are being hoarded. It is those who have money, often classified as middle class, who can afford to stockpile – an activity that cannot be undertaken by people on benefits or have little or no excess cash beyond the necessities of life.

There are other agencies that those who are socially disadvantaged depend will be impacted by the coronavirus because their staff members and volunteers will also contract the virus or may have to look after loved ones who have contracted it. The examples will include organisations like Age UK, the Citizens Advice Bureaux or money advice centres (like Christians Against Poverty). The result is that they will not get the timely response to the real problems that they face.

The advice that has been given out has also not been beneficial to those people who are socially disadvantaged. An example is the encouragement for people to work from home. There has been a growing acceptance that working from home will reduce and could possibly eliminate the possible of contracting the virus in the working environment. Although it is possible for people in office workers to achieve this objective, it is impossible for those undertaking manual work, such as factory workers, cleaners or road workers. (It is admitted that there are ‘middle class’ jobs that cannot be accessed in the home situation, such as managing the transport system, working in courts or prisons. However, it is disproportionately the poorer people in society that are adversely affected.)The outcome is that they remain exposed to any coronavirus infection, including the contact with hard surfaces where the coronavirus is transmitted.

The reality is that the same people are those who still rely on public transport to get to work, whilst the clerical workers are ensconced at home in front of their laptops. This situation leaves them exposed to transmitted virus, such as through coughs or contact on rails, seats and buttons, even where the person transmitting the virus has not demonstrated the symptoms. In addition to the physical manifestations, there is the financial consequences as there will still be fares to pay whilst those working from home can save on this expense.

Where the low paid person does contract COVID-19, it could be that the person does not earn enough to qualify for Statutory Sick Pay. The result is that they will not only lose the meagre income, but they cannot make up for this loss of income in any way. The result could be that they become more imprisoned in the dungeons of debt and even beholden to the chains of high interest rates that wrap around them, so making it even more difficult to escape from their prisons of perpetual poverty.

The problems also extend into the next generation. In order to help stem the progression of the coronavirus, it has been proposed that educational establishments should be closed. It has been proposed that pupils continue with their education by means of online means, which is a supposition that all pupils have access to a personal computer. The possibility of this happening among low paid households is diminished. It is acknowledged as computers in libraries can be accessed (presuming that there is a local library still being open five days a week), but they will be required to be accessed by numerous pupils in the same situation.

It can also be stated that pupils from low salaried families generally have less motivation to learn when they are required to participate in distance learning. It is more compelling to meet your friends on their bikes than to sit in front of a screen and continue with your lessons. The outcome is that they then fall further behind in their academic achievement and their changes of being socially mobile would be lessened.

Another effect of the school closure would be that those entitled to free school meals because low incomes will not receive their nutrition. It is already the experience of children from socially deprived families that they are deprived of nourishing meals during the school holidays, which makes them more dependant on foodbanks (whose impact is pointed out in a previous paragraph). Although the measures taken to close schools will lessen the impact of the coronavirus on the general population, it may detrimentally affect children from low income families both educationally and physically.

We are encouraged to look out for those people who are at the ‘bottom rung’ of the social ladder. We are called upon to ensure that those families and individuals who in poverty get enough to eat (Exodus 23: 11; Leviticus 25: 25). It should not be done in an attitude of being grudging, but we should be eager to demonstrate our human responsibilities to our fellow human beings (Galatians 2: 10).

When the avarice demonstrated in the panic buying takes hold, there is the divine reminder: ‘Is there any poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother.’ (Deuteronomy 15: 7, cf. Deuteronomy 24: 12) It means that we continue to give provisions to the foodbank, even though it means diminishing the amount of contingency foodstuffs in our larder. It means that we do not strip the shelves of the shops so that there is plenty for all to buy. It may also mean that we give of our time in an agency so that those people in need continue to get good quality advice, even if it means signposting them to another organisation.

God will have good regard if we go out of our way deliberately to help the socially disadvantaged people. We are told: ‘He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward him for what he has done.’ (Proverbs 19: 17, cf. Psalm 41: 1, Proverbs 14: 21, Proverbs 28: 27, Matthew 19: 21). It does not mean that we will be immune from the effects of coronavirus, should we contract it, but that we will know God in a more intimate relationship during such an experience.

It stems out of our attitude resulting from the outpouring of grace where Jesus Christ came down in order to raise us up. Because we are recipients of God’s mercy, we cannot look down on other people but should seek the good of all. It means ensuring that we seek the good of all, without exception to race, gender, age, disability or socio-economic status, and even placing ourselves in the line of the virus outbreak as servants of those we seek to serve.