Covid19 has infected the very foundations of our society

 

As we are seeing restrictions lifted and emergency financial help from the Government eased, we take a breath and reflect on how society as we know it has evolved with the impacts of the pandemic; we need to quickly get to grips with the changing needs of society – how people and communities have already been impacted, but also the continually shifting landscape as we already see a second wave of challenges being faced.

If you think in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we really have seen the Covid-19 virus has infected society’s absolute foundations, with people’s basic physical and security needs being thoroughly tested.

 

Coronavirus has had multiple physical impacts

Many of our colleagues and clients have expressed concern with their overall health and wellbeing as a result of lockdown-related isolation at a very basic level. Layer on top of that concerns with possible and actual health issues both directly associated with covid-19 and either exacerbated by, or caused by, the pandemic, and we realise that not many of us have escaped unscathed.

Food shortages

Of course, a factor that has a huge impact on health is food and nutrition. Reduced earnings has led to a lack of food resources, and this is a really serious concern, with a huge reported rise in families that are going without this basic, fundamental, physical provision. Earlier in the lockdown this in part related to difficulties associated with accessing supermarkets, particularly for those who are at high-risk, notwithstanding the scarcity of food in the early days of the pandemic due to bulk panic buying.

The most concerning impact is a lack of funds, leading to exceptionally high demand for food bank supplies to mitigate this crisis. The Trussell Trust reported a 175% increase in requests for emergency parcels in May, and the struggle continues to worsen. Many who are still shielding and who have lost pay or, in many cases, their employment, face an uncertain future, and those that are still on furlough will be understandably worried that they may be next in line for redundancy as the impending recession looms. The reality is that some people are now putting themselves and their families at risk as the only way they can find to put food on the table. For these people’s lives, coronavirus has served a terrible blow.

 

The pandemic has impacted on people’s security in so many ways

 

We are hearing a lot about the predicted economic recession that Government is now attempting to avert, but if we look at the impacts at an individual family level, personal security has taken a massive nose-dive, driven by serious impacts on financial stability.

Universal Credit

The Government uses the increase in the number of Universal Credit claimants as a proxy for measuring reduced income. On that basis the shocking reality is that there have been over three and a quarter million new claims for the welfare benefit since the start of lockdown, with the Government now being forced to invest close to £7 billion extra in the welfare system since the pandemic began, money which is now supporting approximately 10 million families in the UK. This would have been beyond comprehension earlier this year.

Payment delays

As well as claimant numbers soaring, the impact of the well-publicised issues associated with Universal Credit pre-Covid-19 have now touched millions more people, massively impacting on their financial security. The 5 weeks waiting period before the first benefit payment is received has understandably been a major problem area experienced by families who have found themselves ‘locked down’ with extra outgoings, no income and an uncertain financial future. And this really is lose, lose situation. For those who choose to take an advance they then need to pay it back, resulting in reduced benefits for an extended period once their payments actually start, with resulting difficult choices about which creditor must come first; for those who choose not to borrow, the impact comes that much sooner – 5 weeks can equate to 2 months’ arrears in rent, utilities, and a hole in the pocket when it comes to feeding the family. In other words dire straits.

Power and heat

Another basic physiological need is heat – staying warm and being able to cook in our homes. The clement weather has at least been an antidote to heating bills, but with people being at home for longer stretches of time over the months of lockdown, energy use has rocketed. Citizens Advice had  already been warning that 6 million people were behind with household bills, and although energy companies were offering a temporary amnesty on chasing arrears while lockdown was at its peak, they’ve now been given the go-ahead to start chasing payments. This really is going to get very messy.

Debt

All of these impacts have a high chance of leading to debt, but there’s more risk to come in the second wave of impacts as mortgage holidays come to an abrupt end and more people lose their jobs after being furloughed. Rent and council tax arrears are already rife. Citizens Advice has estimated that around 2.6 million tenants had expected to fall behind on their rent because of coronavirus just last month, so debt is looking like it will be the new pandemic for society to deal with.

Housing and shelter

Whilst the Government’s ban on evictions during the height of lockdown has eased people’s fears of losing the security of their homes, once this ends on 23rd August a housing crisis is looming. Our team of social welfare advisers and caseworkers with our parent charity Citizens Advice Gateshead are bracing themselves for this next wave, concerned about their own and other charities’ capacity to cope with what homeless charity Shelter have predicted to be “a tidal wave of homelessness after the end of August”.

Job security

The increase in claims for Universal Credit is a clear indicator that jobs are disappearing fast. Employment Is a major pillar of society and critical to long term personal stability. When the number of people on employers’ payrolls has dropped by 612,000 between March and May, this gives the clearest sign yet of the looming crisis.  The services sector which covers a range of businesses from law firms and accountants to travel agents and restaurants represents 80% of UK economic output, and it’s the service sector that has been hit the hardest. It saw its steepest downturn in activity since records began in July 1996, almost entirely due to the closure of non-essential businesses and the cancellation of orders.

A recent article in the Independent, The story of the UK’s coronavirus jobs crisis in six charts, presents a pretty stark reality when it comes to the employment market. Some 8.7 million British workers have been furloughed since the current crisis began – around a quarter of the UK’s workforce. Under the terms of the furlough scheme, employees receive 80 per cent of their usual wages, up to £2,500 a month, from the government. A further 2.5 million claims have been made under the “Self-Employment Income Support Scheme”. Both schemes are welcomed and have been vital in supporting society through the challenges faced so far, but they are currently only in place until October, and employers are being asked to cover some of the costs from August as the scheme starts to taper.

It is inevitable that many employers who have been able to maintain their staff so far are going to have to make cutbacks and many jobs are still to be lost. The employment advice and law sectors are facing a perfect storm of unfair dismissals and discrimination cases with a spike already appearing in maternity discrimination cases since lockdown began. Will the Government make the decision to extend the furlough and protect businesses and employees’ rights? Balancing the books is going to be difficult and people will inevitably fall through the cracks that are widening in job security.

 

So has lockdown rocked society’s status quo?

 

Let’s be honest, not everyone has faced economic impacts on a personal level, yet, as a result of the virus. Some families have managed to cope better than others. Physical exercise has gone up, credit card balances have gone down and, although on a smaller scale, the heartbeat of normal life for many has continued to beat. However despite people’s personal financial security being robust enough to see them through the worst of this crisis, its psychological and social impacts are far reaching.

The nation is reeling from losing almost 45,000 loved ones, neighbours, colleagues, carers, family members. The horrible reality of not being able to say goodbye, and the suspension and minimalisation of funerals has devasted so many people.  The estimated 30% rise in reported domestic abuse cases since lockdown started is symptomatic of the pandemic. Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day in April as families felt the pressure and victims have become trapped in their homes. PTSD is already starting to emerge across key workers and children, and a recent survey found that some 14 per cent of people aged 16 and above are experiencing a mental health problem “much more than usual”. Extrapolating these findings to the whole of the population indicates that a massive 7.2 million people have experienced problems with their mental health in recent months. The second wave of issues we have identified as being on their way will only add to this.

People’s lives are being damaged. No one will escape the impact of the pandemic altogether – because it has rocked society’s status quo.

Society does matter, and this will be our saving grace

Amidst all of the bad, however, there is still a shining light, because people recognise that society matters. Communities have rallied to protect the vulnerable; hundreds of thousands of volunteers have helped to deliver groceries, pick up prescriptions and check in on neighbours. They have organised local mutual aid groups, helped through existing volunteering networks and offered their time in a host of different ways. Then there’s the overt support we have seen for the NHS and frontline workers, people showing their gratitude in many ways, from donations to clattering pans; we are showing that we care.

This humanity has demonstrated that society does matter, and this will be our saving grace.

But we must still recognise that Covid-19 has infected the very foundations of our society. People need to have their basic needs met to be able to move on in other areas of their lives, so it’s clear that the Government will need to do more to make this happen than an attempt to focus on medium term economic recovery.

Goodwill and friendship can only stretch so far …

 

Adam Matthews, Social Welfare Instructor