There are few events, if any that have impacted the world in such a short space of time as the outbreak of the Coronavirus. For the majority of people in the UK, it has fundamentally changed every part of their lives and most people are scrambling to adapt as ever tighter restrictions are unveiled and more is understood about the virus and how best to manage the spread.
Clearly, the first reaction of any individual or family is to understand the direct impact on their situation and ensure that they do everything possible to protect their family and loved ones. This is almost certainly the driver behind the scenes of stockpiling that have been widely circulated in the news.
The next few weeks will likely see unprecedented levels of change as people try and settle into new routines of working from home, home-schooling their children, and not being able to see their friends and loved ones. Hopefully it will also lead to reassurance as food continues to be available and vital infrastructures hold up to the numerous challenges.
At this time, it is essential that we as a country take a step back and think about the impact on the most vulnerable people in our society. As is most often the way, unforeseen, large scale events almost always create an unequal burden on those who already face significant challenges, and this is certainly the case with the Coronavirus outbreak.
Several recent surveys have shown that loneliness is one of the biggest problems faced by people in the 21st Century. Whilst the problem is felt across all of society, it is most acute in elderly people and disabled people with statistics showing that almost 50% of disabled people feel lonely on any given day, and over 1.4 million older people experience loneliness. With coronavirus being most dangerous for elderly people and those with underlying health conditions, these groups of people are likely to be the groups who are subjected to the most stringent levels of self-isolation. On top of this, they are also likely to be the groups who live in more remote locations, are less comfortable using technology to communicate and order basic supplies, and the most in need of regular access to medication and medical support. Even ignoring the risk of the virus, the measures needed to prevent the spread will create an increasing number of challenges for both older and disabled people.
As with loneliness, problem debt has been a growing issue in the UK ever since the financial crisis. 10 years of austerity have put ever increasing financial strain on the lowest income households. This has been evidenced by year on year increases in defaults on local government debt, and unsecured debt in the UK hitting a new peak of £15,400 per household. Despite the rapid and wide-reaching financial packages that the government have recently announced, the current lockdown will push a huge number of low income households into untenable positions at the same time as resources like food banks and other socially led support networks are reduced.
The closing down of schools places a huge burden on parents and children alike due to the challenges of home-schooling, anxiety about the cancellation of exams, and the lack of social contact for children for a pro-longed period of time. The impact for many Children in Need however is even greater. For those who lack a stable family situation to rely on, the closure of the schools will be even harder to deal with, and will in many cases force children for whom school and friends can be a safehaven into a home setting which already presents challenges, not least in ensuring that their basic needs are met.
Following the introduction of the Universal Credit we completed a piece of analysis for one local authority which showed that the roll out coincided with a spike in domestic violence calls to the Police. If anything the current situation has the capacity to create an even worse position. The dual pressures of escalating debt and the inability to leave the house for prolonged periods of time have the potential to exacerbate any pre-existing issues and have the potential to lead to increasing levels of domestic violence with long term impacts on individuals and families alike.
The sanctions that have been imposed to arrest the spread of the virus will also likely lead to an increase in the number of people forced into homelessness through any one or combination of the circumstances above. Social distancing and self-isolation policies will make it much harder to help these people, on top of which they are more likely to have underlying health issues, and be more likely to require medical support during any infection.
There are no doubt many other vulnerable groups including those with poor mental health who will also suffer increased hardship due to coronavirus and the necessary sanctions imposed to prevent the spread.
So as the next few weeks unfold and people in a more fortunate position settle into the new reality of living with the virus, it is vital that we think broadly and compassionately about how we can work together as a society to spread the impact and try and alleviate the pressure on those who will feel it most.
Clearly the restrictions in place around movement will place some limit on what can be done, but those working in technology should be thinking creatively about how these societal issues can be eased, those with vulnerable friends and family should be thinking about practical ways they can help, and those in government should turn their minds to the unintended consequences of their sanctions on vulnerable people to ensure they are minimised where possible.
There are already some wonderful examples in these areas such as Facebook groups to bring food and resources to vulnerable people, software companies removing paywalls for conferencing and home-schooling applications and large open spaces opening their grounds to all, but over the coming weeks and months, much more is going to be needed and everyone can play their part.
Tom Davies – Commercial Director