By Bill Scott

COVID-19 is exposing the gaping health and wealth inequalities in our society. We may all be at risk from the virus but we are far from being at equal risk. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, in England and Wales, those in low-paid work are four times more likely to die from coronavirus than middle-class professionals.

Similarly, figures from the National Registers of Scotland show that death rates from Coronavirus among people living in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland are more than twice as high as death rates in our least deprived areas.

Why should this be the case? The Poverty and Inequality Commission is aware of long-standing evidence that poverty causes huge health inequalities between the haves and have-nots of Scottish society. So great are these that even before Covid-19 struck, men living in our most deprived areas had an average life expectancy of 20 years less than males from our most affluent ones.

The current emergency has provided us with a stark reminder that a combination of low pay, the stress of struggling on a low income and poor quality, over-crowded housing take a huge toll on people’s health. Even those who escape our deprived estates remain much more vulnerable to Covid-19 – as the higher mortality rate amongst our skilled ethnic minority NHS staff shows.

The negative economic impacts of Covid-19 are as unequally shared as its negative health impacts. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 300,000 Scots families, nearly half of all those with children, are currently struggling financially, with one in five in serious difficulties.

Women, already at a higher risk of poverty, are significantly over-represented in part-time insecure work which makes them much more vulnerable to the sudden loss of income caused by reduced hours and lay-offs. Women are also over-represented in those industries at greatest risk of contraction during a recession – tourism, retail and hospitality. Yet if it were not for women providing untold hours of unpaid care our children, older and disabled people would have been placed in even greater risk.

What the Covid-19 emergency has also shown is that poverty and its consequences are nevertheless not inevitable. They can be tackled. The UK Government has found more than £300 billion to tackle the emergency and the Scottish Government has poured £350 million into food security and community well-being. Millions have been furloughed on 80% pay; the homeless have been housed; hundreds of thousands of older and disabled people and children who had lost their free school meals have been fed and 80,000 Scots carers are to receive an additional £230 payment.

The response may not be perfect, but it has seen a magnificent effort from government civil servants, down through local authorities and national charities to a myriad of small local community groups. If that money and energy can be found to tackle the current emergency there is no reason that it cannot be found in the future.

The real question is will we use billions in public money to simply rebuild the same low-pay economy that has robbed so many thousands of our poorer citizens of their lives? Or will we seize the chance to build a fairer, more equitable society? We at the Commission have offered to assist Scottish Government in “building back better” but we also know that this will not happen unless reducing child poverty is at the very heart of economic recovery policy. The Scottish Government must allow us to play our part.

Bill Scott is Chair of the Poverty & Inequality Commission