This is now the 8th weekly Blog published by the Socialist Health Association (SHA) commenting on how the Coronavirus pandemic is progressing both locally and globally. The lens we use is a socialist worldview where we aspire to One World and Planetary Health and are as concerned to reduce global as well as local health inequalities. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on local inequalities within the UK as well as stark global inequalities where people find themselves exposed and unable to follow the advice we receive in the UK and other rich countries to social distance and pursue rigorous hand hygiene.

Health inequalities in the UK

Last week the Office of National Statistics (ONS) published a report on Covid-19 deaths by local area and by socioeconomic deprivation (www.ons.gov.uk). This covered the period from the 1st March to the 17th April. During this period there were 90,232 deaths in E&W and of these deaths 20,283 involved Covid-19.

Unsurprisingly London had the highest age-standardised mortality rate with 85.7 deaths/100,000 people involving Covid-19. This is significantly higher than any other region and almost double the next highest rate. In these SHA Blogs, one of our observations has been that London was the early hotspot and should have been shutdown much sooner and been our ‘Wuhan’. Remember all the press reports of bars and restaurants remaining open and people packed into London underground trains and buses?

In London Covid-19 deaths were 4,950 amounting to 42% of deaths since the beginning of March compared to 1,051 deaths in the South West region of England, which was only 13% of total deaths there. The eleven Local Authorities with the highest mortality rates were all London boroughs with Newham, Brent and Hackney suffering the highest rates. Outside London rates are high in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.

Newham has the highest age standardised death rate with 144.3 deaths /100,000 population followed by Brent with 141.5 and Hackney with 127.4. In Newham 78% of its population are in BAME groups and 48% live in poverty after rent and household income are taken account of. The three London boroughs are in the most deprived group and across England the most deprived areas have a death rate of 55.1/100,000 compared with 25.3 in the least deprived (118% difference).

The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) is an overall measure based on income, employment, health, education, crime, the living environment and access to housing within an area. Each area of England is grouped into one of ten deciles and the most deprived is in d1 and least deprived in d10. As we know from work over the last 40 years since the Black report in 1980 – there is a social gradient for mortality and many other indicators of health and wellbeing.  Covid-19 has magnified the difference especially for those in the three most deprived deciles which shows a stark difference between Covid-19 deaths and all deaths. In the least deprived decile the mortality rate for all deaths was 122 deaths/100,000 population, whereas in the most deprived it was 229. The difference between all deaths (classic social gradient) was 88% whereas between Covid-19 deaths the difference was 118%, which is 30% higher.

A similar picture emerges in Wales where they present the data as differently. The most deprived fifth of areas have a rate of 44.6 deaths per 100,000 involving Covid-19; this was almost twice as high as the least deprived area with 23.2 deaths/100,000.

The other key finding from the ONS report was on urban versus rural areas. Major urban conurbations had a death rate of 64.3/100,000, which is statistically significantly higher than other categories including urban minor conurbations. The lowest rates unsurprisingly are in rural settings with rates as low as 9/100,000 population. There is a category ONS use called ‘major towns and cities’ in E&W which are built up areas excluding London. Of the 111 major towns and cities the highest mortality rate was in Salford with a rate of 112.6 deaths compared to Norwich with 4.9/100,00. One interesting prosperous market town that was hard hit is Cheltenham with a death rate of 49/100,00, which is significantly higher than the English average!

Austerity and the slow burning injustice

In his 2020 report of ‘Health Equity in England: the Marmot Review 10 years on’ Marmot found that the improvement of life expectancy which had been a consistent finding since the turn of the 19th century stalled in 2010 and years spent in ill health increased. He also showed that the social gradient in health became steeper and regional differences increased.

The two features of Tory government policy during this period was to roll back the State – public expenditure went from 45% of GDP in 2010 to 35% in 2018 – and to be regressive. This meant that the poorer you were the more likely you would be to be disadvantaged by these changes.

The excuse for the policies enacted from 2010 was the 2008 global financial crisis, which led to a decline in the global economy of 0.1% in 2009. The IMF  has predicted that the global economy will decline by 3% in 2020 on account of the pandemic. Already we have seen Universal Credit claims in the UK rise from 150,000 before the pandemic to 1.4m by the 13th April and rising daily. Marmot points out the risk that it would be a calamity if we face a new era of austerity after the pandemic. We need on the contrary to argue for a better society with less inequality and built by reducing child poverty, improving child health and education, improved working conditions ensuring that everyone has the minimum income to lead a healthy life and creating a sustainable environment in which to live and work creating the conditions for people to pursue healthy living.

Places affected by conflict and humanitarian crises

Inequalities are manifest globally as well as locally in the UK. For instance many of the estimated 70m forcibly displaced people worldwide live in insanitary and inhospitable conditions sometimes up to six families living in one tent in a 3sqm area. In these camps people share few latrines and washing facilities and have to queue for food each day. The Covid-19 mantra has been hand washing, social distancing and lockdown. People in conflict zones or refugee camps simply cannot follow this guidance and also have access to very rudimentary healthcare facilities.

There is an urgent need to put international pressure on warring parties in Syria and Yemen to end restrictions on access to health care and humanitarian assistance. Public health support is needed to provide the conditions that do not allow the virus to spread and substantial financial support to overhaul the present conditions. This is more important and practical than supplying ventilators. The Covid-19 pandemic requires a global response for the most vulnerable populations globally as well as locally in the UK (David Nott Lancet 1st May 2020)

Another globally vulnerable group are prisoners. In all countries including the UK prisons are a risk being closed communities with people living in crowded and in some countries squalid conditions. Conditions are worse in countries led by leaders like Duterte and Bolsonaro. In the Philippines for example there are an estimated 215,000 prisoners in prisons built for a capacity of 40,000 and in Brazil 773,000 prisoners are crammed into prisons built for 461,000.

Whether it’s parts of the world with conflict and humanitarian crises or populations suffering from repressive governments there is an urgent need for rich countries to invest in international organisations such as the UN, WHO, UNHCR, UNICEF and AID organisations to try to mitigate the risks that Covid-19 poses on top of already stressed social conditions. It is possible to act locally on health inequalities as well as show solidarity globally.

So what?

In our earlier blogs we have been critical of some aspects of the pandemic response in the UK. It is sad to note that the UK is heading to have the worst outcome in Europe with us starting our epidemic behind Italy, Spain and France when Covid-19 hit Europe. The Government have been too slow to take measures such as locking down London and the South East rapidly and should have continued testing, tracking and isolating across the country – especially where the number of cases has been low and well within the capacity of local resources. This would have built practical experience and we would have learnt valuable lessons.

Now that we have more testing capacity we need to build the programme from the bottom up. Local public health teams in Local Government stand ready to provide local leadership teaming up with professional Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) who have the skills and local knowledge to provide local leadership. Resources need to be targeted at areas of greatest need as we have illustrated through the excellent ONS report. Certainly smart apps will play a part as well as national leadership from COBR on the key features of the test, trace and isolate programme. However there has arguably been too centralised and London based approach to pandemic management. The time is ripe to allow local authority public health, supported by specialist PH resources to work with their Local Resilience Forum (LRF) using their local skills and knowledge to try to bring the pandemic to heel using classic communicable disease control methods of epidemic controls. This will help eliminate the virus, protect the NHS allowing it to reopen for normal business and enable the economy to start up again as soon as practicable.

Pandemics kill in three ways says Jonathan Quick of the Rockefeller Foundation:

The Disease kills,

Disruption of the health service kills

and the

Disruption to the economy kills”.

3.5.2020

Posted by Jean Hardiman Smith on behalf of the Officers and Vice Chairs of the SHA.

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