Why have the poorest people in Britain paid the highest price during the pandemic?
They have taken the biggest hit on every index—from exposure to the virus and lack of economic support to severe infection and death.
For Sir Michael Marmot the answer is that government policy has for years increased health and social inequalities to previously unimaginable levels.
And, he says, few places show the cost of this policy better than Greater Manchester.
Marmot argues that the unfairness of austerity was magnified by Covid-19.
He says that unless urgent measures are taken now, the lives of millions of people will be blighted for a generation to come.
His report shows the coronavirus death rate in Greater Manchester was 25 percent higher than the average across England during the year to March 2021.
This in turn has led to “jaw-dropping” falls in life expectancy. In the north west of England it declined more than a year for women during 2020—far worse than in England overall.
But a closer look at the report reveals that the region is itself heavily divided between rich and poor.
Someone in the poorest 10 percent of the population of Greater Manchester was 2.3 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than a person from the richest 10 percent.
Marmot’s findings strike a chord with Mark, a longstanding social worker for children and people with mental health difficulties in Manchester.
“He’s right to say the problems the problem of poverty is behind our Covid figures,” Mark told Socialist Worker. “And, he’s right to say the problems long predate the pandemic.
“The real turning point was the era of austerity after 2010.
“I’ve seen loads of people who have absolutely no food in their house.
“I’ve been in flats where very vulnerable people have no carpets and giant rats are running around everywhere.”
Mark says that many people who have really struggled during the pandemic are completely cut off from the rest of society.
The fall in life expectancy that Marmot’s report outlines is not simply a result of people falling ill with Covid-19, but the collapse of services that are supposed to help them.
That too can be life-threatening. Mark said, “Some of the people without food that I’ve seen are older and they’ve lost contact with everyone during lockdown. Not just their friends and family, but with support workers and nurses too.
“These people are really struggling.”
Mark says the problem of homelessness also helps spread the coronavirus.
Over 5,000 people are homeless in the region, and many more are not counted in official statistics.
“A lot of younger people without a permanent home are ‘sofa-surfing’. They are going from one house to another,” he says. That means close contact with many different groups of people and increases the risk of transmission.
Those people are in turn told that they are responsible for spreading the virus.
“Austerity has been used to pin the blame on the policies’ victims, rather than the system itself,” says Mark.
The strength of Marmot’s report is that it lays into the Tories for the crime of austerity.
And it doesn’t join in with the attempt to blame the victims of neoliberal policy.
But its recommendations for what should be done now are far too timid, and don’t match the scale of the problem it outlines.
The report calls on the government to fund a range of programmes so that it can deliver on its own “levelling up” agenda.
But for the Tories, austerity-driven poverty was never an oversight—it was a planned political choice.