A recent poll by Ipsos MORI has revealed that Britons believe society to be less divided now compared with last year. Similarly, when asked to compare how divided British society is with 10 years ago, 60% think it is more divided now, but this is down 11% from last year.
This is not a surprise. The coronavirus pandemic has without a doubt brought us closer together as a nation, and for many, the past five or so years of Brexit ‘dither and delay’, arguably our most prominent divide, are nothing more than a distant memory. But is British society really less divided?
The easy answer is yes. After all, we have not seen such an outpouring of community spirit since World War Two. A report by ONS found that more than half of the population said they felt a sense of belonging in their community, and more than two-thirds thought people were “doing more to help others since the coronavirus outbreak”, with a similar proportion believing that they could rely on community support. In the last three months alone, millions have pulled together to support our clinically underfunded NHS, plugging the holes left from a decade of near-neglect by the government, and to date, £123m has been raised for NHS charities.
However, whilst it may be true that coronavirus has brought us together in a more superficial way, to say that British society has become less divided as a consequence of it is farcical. Coronavirus has simply served to highlight and to amplify existing systemic divisions within British society.
This is especially evident when looking at economic inequality as a source of division, and as a direct cause of healthcare and health choice disparity. People living in deprived areas are dying of coronavirus at double the rate of those in affluent areas, a disgusting statistic in a nation which is not only the fifth wealthiest globally, but which claims to possess the world’s best healthcare system. While news outlets bemoan how this pandemic has wiped billions from the economy, slashing the fortunes of the 1%, poverty is needlessly killing thousands, and going largely unreported. March saw a 59% increase in demand for emergency food support, up 17% from the same time last year, not to mention the many millions more that coronavirus has already forced deeper into poverty through factors such as unemployment. Economic and health inequality have become such a sharp societal divide that we are effectively in a state of social reverse; coronavirus was not a cause of this, but a manifestation.
But the story does not end here; there are multiple layers of division within our society that do not just run along economic lines.
The coronavirus pandemic has also underlined the significance of institutionalised racism as a point of division and cause of vast socioeconomic inequality, evidently something which governments past and present have done little to mitigate. This has come to the fore in recent weeks after it was revealed that those from BAME backgrounds were more than twice as likely to die from coronavirus than those from White British backgrounds. But this is not because they have some sort of genetic predisposition to coronavirus – this is a fundamental symptom of structural racism, a determinant of both wealth and health in British society for the BAME community.
Ethnic minority populations are overrepresented in lower socio-economic groups, more likely to be living in overcrowded accommodation, and experience a disproportionate rate of employment in lower band, high-risk key worker roles, those now vital to the fight against coronavirus. When governments have done so little to promote equity and equality (ministers didn’t even manage to publish the entire report into why those from BAME backgrounds were dying at a higher rate from Covid-19), it comes as no surprise that coronavirus has affected the BAME population so disproportionately.
As Boris Johnson continues to profess “We will beat coronavirus together”, we must question this rose-tinted concept of togetherness (though not, however, in the frivolous way his own chief adviser did). The reality is that our society is no less divided as a consequence of coronavirus, but that systemic division and inequality are present, severe, and growing. For many, this now more than ever is a matter of life or death.
Image: Nick Youngson via Creative Commons