Britain has a hidden coronavirus crisis – and it’s shaped by inequality | Frances Ryan | Opinion

As the pandemic spreads across the world, it’s the number of tragic deaths and the hunt for a vaccine that dominate headlines. The social fallout of the virus is receiving less attention. The women locked in with abusive partners. The vulnerable children, invisible to social workers now that schools are closed. We might call them the hidden casualties of coronavirus: the ones who are unable to find safety within the four walls of home.

Take the families going hungry. Research conducted by the Food Foundation has revealed that 3 million people in Britain are living in households where someone has been forced to skip some meals, and 1.5 million people have gone without food for a whole day because they had no money or access to food.

The causation is clear enough: a cocktail of rising food bills, unemployment and reduced wages from the pandemic, the paucity of the social security system, and isolation of those for whom even a trip to Tesco is now a luxury.

It’s not hard to imagine how this is playing out in homes and communities across the UK. Doing “one big shop” to avoid going out only works if you happen to have £150 in your bank account. When panic buying reduces stock, low-income families who are usually able to shop around for cheaper products are forced to buy whatever’s left. Couple this with a fall or drop in income, and meagre universal credit provision, and it’s clear why some food banks are seeing as much as a 300% increase in footfall compared with this time last year, according to the Independent Food Aid Network. All this while donations of basic supplies plummet.

Or consider those struggling to pay the rent. New research shows that a fifth of private renters had to choose between paying for food and bills and paying their landlords this month. The government has introduced a temporary ban on evictions but a quarter surveyed have already lost their home. Unable to pay the rent, they had to voluntarily move in with friends or parents.

Listen to a press conference from Downing Street, and you would be forgiven for thinking none of this was happening. Recent days have seen blatant attempts to depoliticise coronavirus, as if the pandemic exists in a vacuum devoid of economic or social factors. Boris Johnson falling ill seemed to confirm the idea that coronavirus is a great leveller – after all, not even an Eton-educated prime minister was immune from the effects of the disease.

Meanwhile, ministers have adopted “kind tokens” as a response to political concerns: from clapping for NHS staff working in cash-strapped hospitals to painted hearts in windows for abuse victims whose local refuges have probably closed.

We are witnessing the sanitisation of social problems: the government is trying to convince us that gestures are a substitute for sufficient funding, and that the comfortable are as vulnerable as the insecure.

In reality, Britain is experiencing a public health crisis defined by inequality. Yes, the lockdown has forced some, such as the self-employed, into contact with the UK’s decimated welfare system for the first time; but the majority of the detrimental social effects of the virus are distributed along existing faultlines.

Almost 2 million people were already undernourished before coronavirus hit, with one in five under-15s living with an adult experiencing food insecurity after a decade of austerity. Hunger, much like insecure housing or domestic abuse, is not a new phenomenon. There were already cracks in our society, and we should have known that given the slightest pressure they would cause it to shatter.

As the number of cases rises in the UK and an extended lockdown seems inevitable, it is only right we start a frank conversation about the social fallout of the virus. How will prolonged isolation affect those who were struggling to begin with, and what should the government do to help them? While ministers suggest we paint hearts in windows, there are millions who will be preoccupied tending to more pressing material concerns: is there food in the cupboard? How will they pay rent? Are their children safe? This is a national crisis – just not the one we’re hearing about.

Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist

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