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For the ‘COVID decade’ ahead, the UK’s intersecting inequalities demand interconnected solutions

A hallmark of the pandemic has been the exacerbation of inequalities which may continue to widen over the next decade if action is not taken. The British Academy’s review of COVID-19’s long-term societal impacts is an important step towards understanding what kinds of policy response are required

Molly Morgan Jones, Joanna Thornborough and Alex Mankoo

On 23 March, one year on from the beginning of the UK’s first lockdown, the British Academy published a review on the long-term societal effects of COVID-19 in Britain. As the UK’s national body for humanities and social sciences, the Academy brought together the findings of more than 200 academics and experts to establish an evidence base on some of the central long-term impacts of the pandemic – plus some of the policy goals and opportunities needed to navigate these challenges in the coming ‘COVID decade’.

One of the hallmark impacts of the pandemic has been the exacerbation of inequalities, which may continue to widen over the next decade if action is not taken. But these inequalities are not unitary in nature, and many inequalities intersect in cumulative ways. So while there is strong evidence for the widening of many forms of inequality in their own right, we also have to connect the evidence that will enable us to understand the intersectional factors that are at play here. Researchers across the SHAPE subjects have studied and highlighted the importance of intersectionality for many years; this will be a vital research agenda to be explored in the near and longer-term future.

The UK’s landscape of inequality in the pandemic

The UK entered the pandemic facing inequality-related challenges across gender, ethnicity, age and geography – some of which were already worsening prior to the pandemic (for example, regional wealth and inequalities associated with health, education and social mobility).

In February 2020, the UK2070 Commission into regional inequalities wrote: ‘Whether in terms of health, housing or productivity, it is now accepted that the UK is one of the most regionally imbalanced economies in the industrialised world.’ The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated these fault lines across our society, and has the potential to further solidify them if left unchecked.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted patterns and variations in multiple deprivation at all levels. Indeed, some scholars have described COVID-19 as a ‘syndemic’, because it involves the ‘accumulation and adverse interaction between two or more conditions in a population, often resulting from the social context in which that population lives’. Such overlapping and intersecting conditions, and their cumulative effects, are a feature of this pandemic, as well as one of its primary challenges.

The intersectional nature of inequalities

Many of those already affected by existing structural inequalities have been exposed to greater numbers of intersecting stressors during the pandemic, while having fewer resources to be able to cope with these. For example, women are more likely to have been furloughed, made redundant or seen a reduction in their working hours – compounded by gender gaps in caring responsibilities. The pandemic has also seen higher levels of domestic violence against women and girls (in particular, vulnerable migrant women without recourse to public funds or support) and there has been a significant negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic.

Inequalities in socio-economic conditions have also been laid bare. Health outcomes in the immediate term have been worse for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or who have been most adversely impacted by economic shocks. There have been disproportionate impacts on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

Where negative impacts of the pandemic intersect with pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities, problems are also being stored up for the future. Many of the most vulnerable children were already invisible to social care services; school closures, coupled with varied access to online tools and learning resources, have heightened their risk of exposure to harm. Combined with other increased stresses during the pandemic, these factors are all associated with impacts such as the later onset of mental health problems, and the potential for other longer-term scarring due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Interconnected impacts need interconnected solutions

The intersectional nature of inequalities during the pandemic has significant implications for policy. Above all, interconnected impacts need interconnected solutions.

While our report highlights seven policy goals, ranging from investment in digital infrastructure to creating a more responsive and agile education system, there are no one-to-one relationships between the impacts we have seen and the policies needed to tackle them. By way of illustrating this point, we’ll briefly consider the intersections between our policy goals around communities, data linkage, multi-level governance, education and digital infrastructure.

Some of the most effective responses to the pandemic in the UK have been those rooted in existing local infrastructure and community support networks. We need to enable communities to strengthen and expand social infrastructures that work for them, including developing strong, decentralised and inclusive partnerships across multiple sectors and services at a local level.

Central to this will be integrating efforts to create a more agile and responsive education and training system capable of addressing the unprecedented loss of learning across all ages, from lost access to early years’ education to apprenticeships and lifelong skills development. A coordinated, systems-level rethink for improving education and skills can help establish an environment where those in the labour market are able to respond in a flexible and dynamic way.

Linkages between national and local authorities, community organisations and the ‘hyper-local’ can underpin this, enabling inequalities to be properly understood and addressed, and for responses to be resourced appropriately.

To do this, we need to find better ways of linking up multiple forms of data and evidence, including improved data access for external accredited experts and researchers on an ongoing basis. We also need to take forward options for increasing the breadth and depth of local expertise in research, data analysis and communication. Locally grounded analytical capacities in the form of ‘local observatories’ could bring together local expertise in universities, civil society groups, local government and businesses.

All of this will be hard to tackle, however, so long as the digital divide remains a primary barrier to addressing geographical and socioeconomic inequalities. Eliminating the digital divide, by treating digital infrastructure as a critical, life-changing public service, could help to address this.

From lessons learned to effective policy responses

Policymakers can move forward in pandemic responses by recognising this interconnectedness and using these lessons as starting points to develop new programmes of work. Research can do so too.

Establishing an effective policy ecosystem to monitor and mitigate the first-, second- and third-order effects of COVID-19 cannot be undertaken in silos. We can improve mechanisms for policies that reflect a broader range of voices – including those who have been underrepresented such as children and young people, ethnic minorities, and those in precarious employment – to be meaningfully heard in the development of public services.

More meaningful and constructive engagement of citizens and non-state actors is one of several ways we can improve our policy ecosystem, by helping to establish more transparency and trust in decision-making at all levels. The inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated are long-term and interconnected in nature. Effective policy responses must aim to be the same.

Dr Molly Morgan Jones is Director of Policy and Dr Joanna Thornborough is Policy Advisor at The British Academy. Dr Alex Mankoo is a Policy Consultant for the Academy and Lecturer at the University of Sussex

This post draws on the British Academy’s recent independent review on the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19. The review produced two reports – launched on 23 March 2021, the first anniversary of the lockdown – which are available on The British Academy website, along with an evidence hub of the research that informed this review. 

  • The British Academy’s Chief Executive, Hetan Shah, is part of today’s panel discussion hosted by IPPO and The Conversation, exploring the social impacts of COVID-19 and how to tackle them.