Coronavirus Is Dividing The Rich And Poor – And Could Drag Hundreds Of Thousands Into Poverty

Self-isolation, home working and stockpiling are not options for those living paycheque-to-paycheque.

Heating during the day. Broadband. A laptop. A job you can do at home. Enough disposable income to stockpile food and medicine. A freezer. The right to full sick pay from day one.

All things we would rely on if ordered to self-isolate, or work from home, due to the coronavirus.

And all things that might not be available to people on low incomes or in precarious work.

For those who are just about scraping by, illness or workplace closures could be far more than just an inconvenience – while, at the other end of the spectrum, the virus has been spread across the globe (albeit unwittingly) as people take half-term ski holidays and attend international conferences.

Like everything, Covid-19 is dividing the rich from the poor.

Charity Turn2us helps people in financial hardship.

Campaigns officer Liam Evans told HuffPost UK: “If you are living paycheque to paycheque, you will not have the ability to buy food in bulk, or if you do not have a freezer, you will be unable to store food for a long time.

“Both these things are vital if you are self-isolating.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock announced on Tuesday that the number of UK cases had risen to 51, and prime minister Boris Johnson is expecting as many as one-in-five people to be absent from work at the peak of the outbreak.

But Turn2us says those who are “just about managing” could be tipped into crisis should they fall ill, or have to self-isolate for medical reasons.

Poorer households are unlikely to be able to stockpile supplies of food and medication, leaving them exposed should stock in shops and pharmacies dwindle.

The “panic” around the potential spread of the disease has revealed the stark contrast between those who are able to properly prepare and those who aren’t, Evans said.

“People working practical and manual jobs on zero-hour contracts will not have the luxury of working from home,” he added.

“This could result in a serious loss of income and drag hundreds of thousands of people into poverty.”

Liam Evans, from Turn2us
Liam Evans, from Turn2us
Liam Evans

The additional costs associated with working from home – higher heating bills, the cost of internet access and simple logistics – are not easily accessible for lower-income workers, many of whom are unable to do their jobs at all outside of their usual working environment.

Helen Barnard, deputy director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told HuffPost UK: “There are many people, including those working as delivery drivers or in warehouses, or as carers, who have no good options.”

To make matters worse, Barnard said disabled people, those with ongoing and underlying health conditions, and those who look after them could be among the worst-hit in health terms.

“People on low incomes are much more likely to be part of these groups,” she told HuffPost UK.

“They are among those who are at higher risk of getting the virus, and of it being more serious, yet they are also the least equipped to deal with its impact.

“People who are just about making ends meet every month and are struggling to pay the bills are unlikely to have much spare resource.

“For those who are just about managing to stay afloat, if they need to stay off work for two weeks and don’t get very much sick pay, that could be the thing that tips them over the edge and into debt.”

According to Bloomberg, wealthy Americans have enquired about the possibility of accessing a potential vaccine early – but it will be “months at the earliest” before one is even developed, the UK government has said.

But for those without much disposable cash, even accessing adequate supplies of vital daily medication is a struggle.

Helen Barnard, Joseph Rowntree Foundation deputy director
Helen Barnard, Joseph Rowntree Foundation deputy director
Joseph Rowntree Foundation

“There seems to be very little in the way of advice about accessing supplies of medication [in case of needing to self-isolate], and many doctors will not prescribe large supplies of medication,” Barnard added.

“Advice around stockpiling and making sure you have adequate supplies at home [of food and medicine] is based around an assumption that everyone has a buffer. And lots of people do not.”

Self-employed people who rely on Universal Credit to top up their earnings could also take a hit, the foundation believes.

“There is a minimum income threshold that has to be met, so anyone who is their own boss and relies on the benefit faces losing out too,” Barnard said.

“All of this highlights the need for a strong labour market – it provides people with resilience in times of emergency, and it is the people on lower incomes who do not have that resilience now.”

On Tuesday, Citizens Advice urged the government to protect the “millions of workers who may be pushed into financial hardship” through self-isolation.

The charity, which offers advice nationwide on a range of issues from housing to debt, wants ministers to clarify sick pay rights and make sure people can access quick financial support if they are not eligible for statutory sick pay.

“No one should fear getting ill or risk their health because they won’t be able to pay their bills, but this will be the reality for millions of workers if the coronavirus outbreak worsens,” said Dame Gillian Guy, Citizens Advice chief executive.

“Problems with our system for sick pay are long-standing. Even for those eligible for statutory sick pay, at just £400 a month it may not be enough to cover essential living costs, leaving them with the impossible choice of ignoring advice to self-isolate or continuing to work while unwell.

“The government must clarify sick pay rights for workers and ensure the benefits system can respond flexibly so that people have enough to make ends meet if they do fall ill.”

MPs were told that workers not eligible to receive sick pay could claim Universal Credit – but under the current system, initial claimants face a five-week wait for their first payment.

Evans said the circumstances highlight the need for welfare reform – something Turn2us has campaigned for.

“[There is a] dire need for a welfare state that is timely and responsive, which is another reason to end the five-week wait for Universal Credit,” he added.

“Our plans include not just the most likely case but the reasonable worst case,” he added.

“We will identify and support the most vulnerable and if necessary we will take some of the actions set out in today’s plan to reduce the impact of absentees and to lessen the impact on our economy and supply chains.”

Before You Go