There is a lot more we can do to protect the most vulnerable during this crisis, writes Rachel Cable.
At the time of going to press, 98 people in Wales had lost their lives to Coronavirus.
Whilst confirmed cases stand at over 1,800, the real figure is expected to be far higher. We know as each hour passes, these numbers are likely to rise. Oxfam is concerned about the impact the Coronavirus will have on the most vulnerable communities.
Today in Wales, 23% of people are living in poverty, and certain groups face particular risks during this pandemic – including unpaid and underpaid carers, children and young people in low income households, those in low paid and precarious work, women, black, ethnic and minority groups, pensioners, those with learning disabilities and underlying health conditions.
The Coronavirus will have a devastating impact on the health of the poorest people in society. The links between poverty and health inequality are well documented; people living in poverty are ten times more likely to have a chronic health condition, and suffer poor mental health. Diet, both in terms of food options available and food consumed, play a part in this story.
We know that children in receipt of free school meals often go hungry during the school holidays. During periods of school closure, families often need to provide equivalent meals themselves – some estimate the cost of doing so is significantly higher than the cost of free school meals – with families having to spend as much as an extra £30/40 a week on food in holiday periods.
The need to secure nutritious food to disadvantaged groups during Covid-19 is ever more important. This is crucial as the population’s diet is likely to worsen during the outbreak with malnutrition and obesity likely to increase. We are already seeing reduced access to basic food items which will have a longer-term impact on food prices, cost of living, and access to emergency food aid.
The pandemic is putting huge pressure on the food system which present us with different challenges: people being unable to afford food in crisis; people unable to access food (self-isolation, service closures); and local food businesses unable to open (having knock-on effects on food supply, workers’ income etc).
Wales’ anti-poverty coalition are working together to make recommendations to the Welsh Government to help to address these issues. This includes calling for:
- A national food aid mechanism.
- Paying cash grants to frontline charities providing meals for especially vulnerable people;
- Supporting local authorities to utilise facilities to produce and / or deliver food.
- Considering other ways to maximize household financial resilience, for example, by capping or freezing utility bills or Council Tax, as we understand has been introduced in Italy.
- Amending the eligibility criteria for the Discretionary Assistance Fund and increasing its scope to ensure anyone who is facing financial pressure as a result of Covid-19 is eligible.
For those who are self-employed, on insecure contracts, or working for businesses forced to close due to the crisis, their ability to pay for essentials such as food and accommodation will be severely compromised.
These financial hardships combined with the isolation from social networks and face to face services, will have a negative impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing. Social distancing and self-isolation are necessary measures, but such stringent restrictions present us with new challenges on tackling loneliness and isolation.
“70% of the world’s health workers are women who’ll be on the frontline of infection risk.”
The Welsh Government has already announced a £10million emergency fund for rough sleepers which is of course welcome, but further measures are needed to support early intervention and ensure that people do not fall into homelessness in the first place.
It is time now for the Welsh Government to work with local authorities and social landlords to see:
- A halt of all actions over this period including any re-possession actions in the pipeline.
- The adoption of a ‘no evictions into homelessness approach’ within a longer-term sustainable approach to tackling homelessness.
- An acceleration of the implementation of the Renting Homes (Amendment) (Wales) Bill and the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016.
- Work with partners to establish whether payment holidays can be introduced on a temporary basis for tenants – costs such as social housing rent, Council Tax and utilities costs.
- Support of families by ensuring pay for people who can’t work normal hours because of caring commitments and guarantee no family will lose their home as a result.
- Financial support to parents who will struggle to provide the necessary resources, to carry out school work.
- All information and guidance from government and local authorities to be clear, concise and direct, available in different languages and accessible formats.
Right around the world it is women who are likely to be hardest hit by this pandemic – 70% of the world’s health workers are women who’ll be on the frontline of infection risk – and women shoulder the vast burden of unpaid care which is bound to increase dramatically, whether caring for sick relatives or looking after children at home because schools are closed.
We know that it tends to be women, who are concentrated in jobs which provide low income, insecure contracts, and poor (or in some cases no) sick pay. They are most at risk of losing their jobs, having to take unpaid leave, or being exposed to the virus due to their role in front-line services.
We must recognise that Covid-19 will have a different and distinct impact on women. During this crisis, women are at risk of: falling into poverty; being left without pay to depend on inadequate social security; and of experiencing domestic abuse and violence while everyone is advised to stay home.
It is critical that the Welsh Government takes a gendered approach in its response by: ensuring women’s voices are in the room and involved in decision making; ensuring women are protected in the workplace to ensure they can continue to work in essential services where possible; ensuring employers do not financially penalise women balancing work and care needs; and encouraging shared caring responsibilities – the changes in our ways of working (increased home working) must benefit both women and men, and address inequality, rather than reinforcing it.
These steps will be important in protecting our social care workforce which is dominated by women and is currently under-valued and under-resourced, yet will be relied heavily upon during this outbreak. Increased pressure on providers will pose further risks to social care workers living in poverty who are already struggling to pay for the essentials.
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In addition, a tremendous amount of care and domestic work is undertaken by unpaid carers. The Welsh Government must do everything it can to protect our carers by appropriately valuing both paid and unpaid care by recognizing, rewarding and redistributing care.
The Coronavirus poses a genuine threat to the lives and human rights of all individuals but particularly to those living in poverty; this should be explicitly recognized, and a commitment made to a swift return to our freedoms post-crisis. While we are in the eye of the storm now, we must not lose sight of our return to ‘normality’ when this is over.
We should use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to. Our focus should be on building back better – making sure our post-crisis recovery reduces Wales’ vulnerability, and builds our nation’s resilience.
We won’t live with poverty.
This article is an adaptation of an open letter sent to Welsh Government by Wales’ anti-poverty coalition in March 2020.
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