Coronavirus – addressing the inequality of ‘the great leveller’

Written by Helen Roach

If you’d ask me 2 months ago what I’d be busy doing in work in April, I’d have told you something very different to how the last month has panned out.  While some things I was expecting to work on have continued, others have paused or are being done in new ways and I’m spending time doing new and unexpected things, like building my understanding of how coronavirus is impacting on our members’ work and investigating how we can adapt our support to our members’ changing situations.

One thing is clear though – inequality has not been furloughed. Data and personal stories are starting to emerge, showing that the current situation has impacted different people in different ways.  People’s housing situations are having a bigger impact on their lives than ever. Housing differences such as whether you have a garden, over-crowding, if you’re awaiting non-essential maintenance work, local broadband speed, living costs, if you share communal spaces, and the behaviour of your neighbours and community are just a few examples of how where we live will impact unequally on our experience of lockdown.

However, varying housing situations are not the only source of inequality.  As policies have been developed quickly in emergency mode, articles in the news make it feel like an assessment of equality impact has sometimes been seen by decision-makers as a time-consuming luxury which cannot be afforded in a time of crisis.  In fact, it’s never been more important.

While supermarkets have sought to demonstrate that they are prioritising “the most vulnerable”, some have put policies in place which unintentionally penalise those who most need support.  The Disability News Service have reported that 200 disabled people have instructed solicitors to take legal action against supermarkets as inflexible policies, well-intentioned to prioritise customers considered vulnerable to coronavirus, prevent many disabled people from accessing needed online deliveries or even visiting stores.  Stories have abounded in the news of shop staff banning children to help slow the spread of coronavirus, while not seeming to realise that for single parents and many others, leaving the children at home is not an option.  Campaigners have now started legal proceedings against the UK government, saying that a lack of sign language interpretation has discriminated against BSL users from accessing critical information.  ‘Standard’ PPE is designed to fit an average man from the US or Europe, meaning far higher numbers of women and BAME men are working on the frontline without adequate protection.  The National Domestic Abuse Helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls, showing that a lockdown policy designed to keep people safe is endangering some lives, predominantly those of women and children.  These are just a few examples of how policies and practices applied equally to all leave some disproportionately disadvantaged, not even beginning to touch on areas like mental health, age, religious practices or cultural customs.

There are also positive examples, where consideration of equalities impacts is leading to flexibility in policies.  The Welsh Government recently widened the definition of vulnerable people and announced a change in policy to allow people with particular health conditions or disabilities to leave home to exercise more than once a day, designed to particularly help families with children with learning disabilities and autism.  There was also an acknowledgement that, while most people should exercise near their home, people with specific health or mobility issues may need to travel from their home by vehicle in order to be able to exercise.  In addition, written coronavirus information has been made available in a range of languages and Easy Read by the UK Government.

As we talk to our members, we hear of a range of far-reaching changes being implemented quickly as housing and other service providers seek to quickly adapt services to meet the needs of tenants and service users.  We’re hearing of a plethora of great practice and innovation.

However, as coronavirus increases inequality in a range of ways, it is more important than ever that organisations ensure their policies and practices don’t unintentionally further this inequality.  We have a range of resources available on our website to help members undertake equality impact assessments and make adjustments, and we can offer further bespoke support through member benefits and consultancy.

We are also working to adapt our work to support our members in a range of other ways during this crisis.  This has included feeding into regular Welsh Government policy meetings on adaptations and homelessness; providing a new online i-act for Managers course to equip managers to support their colleagues’ mental health; sending fortnightly Covid-19 newsletters to members; and creating a new page on our website to compile useful resources we come across which are relevant to Covid-19 in relation to housing and equalities.  Our helpline and consultancy services are still responding to member enquiries, and we continue to offer free online job advertising to members recruiting new staff and Board members.

We’re so heartened every time we hear from members continuing to prioritise equality during this crisis and making efforts to ensure all their diverse tenants, service users and staff are reached and supported.  If you need any help, or want to share your good practice, just get in touch via helpline@taipawb.org and we’ll support you in every way we can.