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All Else Not Equal: COVID-19, Inequality, and the Role of Policymakers

David Mesa analyses the effects of the pandemic on inequality and the response of policymakers.

The effect of the pandemic on income inequality has been a focal point of media attention. There is particular attention on the fact that the pandemic has exacerbated income inequality in developed countries. For instance, work-from-home measures have meant that many low-paid service jobs, which typically require face-to-face contact, have been curtailed.  Meanwhile, most high-paid jobs have continued to operate remotely—triggering a K-shaped recovery in the wake of the pandemic. There is also concern that inequalities between low and high-paid jobs may continue to worsen with the increasing capacity of AI to replace tasks performed by low-paid workers.

Beyond economic inequality

Often overlooked, however, is the effect of the pandemic on another important dimension of inequality: gender. Recent research and aggregate statistics suggest that women have been more exposed to employment loss, as women tend to work in occupations that are more susceptible to the effects of the pandemic. The expected result is upward pressure on the average gender wage gap for years to come.

More optimistic trends are observable elsewhere. The gender childcare gap in UK households has somewhat improved: the allocation of childcare tasks has slightly equalised in those households in which men work from home, have been furloughed or are newly unemployed. That said, the time allocation gap for childcare and home-schooling remains at one hour per day in households in which men and women of similar characteristics both work from home, in similar occupations. Moreover, mothers who have stopped working due to the pandemic perform far more domestic duties than fathers in an equivalent situation. Perhaps most tragic is the fact that the shock of the pandemic on household bargaining has also contributed to an increase in domestic violence since the pandemic’s onset.

Although male deaths from COVID have been higher, the impact of the pandemic on mental health has disproportionately affected women. Already experiencing poorer mental health pre-pandemic, many women have seen their mental health decline due to worsening economic prospects. This is heightened by the increased burden of childcare and household tasks performed alongside work-related tasks at home. Sadly, these gender differences in mental well-being extend to childhood. Recent research has outlined a significant difference in the effect of the pandemic on mental health between girls and boys, especially among 10-15 years old. 

Another overlooked aspect of the pandemic is the impact of school closures on intergenerational mobility. In recent lockdowns, pupils attending private schools were twice as likely as those attending state schools to have access to regular online teaching. In addition, children in those households that have lost income due to the pandemic have more limited access to supplementary paid learning resources relative to their peers in those households that did not face any income loss. These facts combined have inevitably widened the gap in achievement between low- and high-income children. 

Policymakers, the only ‘great equalisers’

The multifaceted effects of the pandemic on inequality present several salient challenges to policymakers, as well as many opportunities to improve the situation we find ourselves in. 

The increase in income inequality will need addressing. An obvious solution is for governments to provide guaranteed income to low-income households which have been disproportionately setback by the pandemic. However, such support is likely to be met with controversy, given the dramatic rise in public debt since the pandemic began.

On the issue of gender inequality, the pandemic may have helped shift attitudes towards an equal division of household duties. Policymakers may capitalise on this momentary change in attitudes to establish new household norms in the future—which seems urgent, given the recent rise in domestic violence. Changes in norms may also positively impact gender segregation in some occupations unveiled by the pandemic. 

As for the detrimental and unequal effects of the pandemic on mental health, policymakers could act by increasing public access to care workers and other resources, as well as providing a broader suite of options for treatment and referrals. Again, however, this may elicit some criticism due to the resources this would require from the NHS, which has been under stress throughout the pandemic.

Considering the widening education gap, failure to act now will result in persistent (and increasing) disparities between low- and high-income children in education, income, and health. 

The deepening inequalities brought on by the pandemic may prove harmful for the UK’s economic outlook as they limit equality of opportunity in society and, in doing so, may generate inefficiencies. Tackling these issues should therefore be a priority for policymakers. Time will tell whether they will rise to the challenge.

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