Opinion

Health inequality: Most people are wrong about Covid impact

Most people think Covid-19 has hit everybody’s mental and physical health to a similar degree. That assumption ignores health inequality in our society, says the Health Foundation’s Dame Clare Moriarty.

Man in mask walking down street during covid - illustrating health inequalities

Young people are among those disproportionately hit by coronavirus. Photo: Tim Dennell

This week has been one of national reflection. One year on from the first lockdown, we have been on a challenging journey since then. Our way of life has been upended, and while we can look forward to lockdown measures easing over the coming weeks and months, the pandemic continues to have an unequal impact on our society.

Clare-Moriarty-for-bio-from-Health-Foundation
Dame Clare Moriarty. Photo courtesy of Health Foundation

Since October last year, it has been my privilege to serve as the Chair of the Health Foundation’s Covid-19 impact inquiry, which is exploring the pandemic’s implications for health and health inequalities across the UK. We’ve been examining a range of evidence and hearing from people across the nation to understand how their experiences have been shaped by factors such as the jobs they do, homes they live in, existing health conditions, their age, gender and ethnicity.

Beyond the direct impact of Covid-19 on health, we’ve seen profound negative impacts of the pandemic on certain groups such as young people, women, key workers and ethnic minorities, with evidence that the lockdown measures have severely impacted the building blocks of good health, from education and work to mental health and housing.

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In the labour market for example, with young people more likely to work in the hardest hit sectors of hospitality and retail, 1 in 3 people aged 18 to 24 have been furloughed or let go from their jobs, twice the rate of working-age adults overall. This has implications for health both now and in the long term, with a loss of work or income leading to poorer health including increased stress and anxiety. In fact, Young Minds found that 67 per cent of young people believe that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

Women have been impacted economically too. The Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that school closures, job losses and furlough have all had an unequal impact on mothers, who have typically been the ones to reduce their working hours to look after their children, or left their jobs all together due to childcare issues and the challenges of home schooling. Meanwhile, research has also shown that people from black and minority ethnic communities are more likely to be key workers, making them more likely to be exposed to the virus.

However, while evidence of the pandemic’s impact on inequality is clear to see, there appears to be a disconnect between the reality of this impact and the nation’s perceptions of health inequalities. In fact, a recent survey by the Health Foundation revealed that adults across the UK are unaware of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on certain groups, with around half of respondents believing that the pandemic has impacted the physical and mental health of everyone equally, no matter their background, age or gender.

With what we know about the pandemic’s impact on health inequalities, this misconception should be of great concern. If we want to truly rebuild and recover, it is critical we talk about these issues more openly, with our friends, colleagues and neighbours. A healthy population is one of the nation’s most important assets, and we can all play our part in ensuring that health and wellbeing is placed at the heart of the levelling up agenda.

It is now more important than ever that the Government chooses to invest in the areas that allow people to live a healthy life – whether that be education or good quality work. As we prepare to report our findings from the Covid-19 impact inquiry this summer, I look forward to helping play a key role in shaping the debate and ensuring the recovery addresses existing and emerging inequalities in health.

Dame Clare Moriarty is former civil servant and Chair of the Health Foundation’s Covid-19 impact inquiry

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