Housing, class and Coronavirus

When the Prime Minister and the heir to the throne were struck down by Coronavirus there was a lot of guff in the media about this being a democratic disease that can strike everyone, be they high or low. Yet it is quite clear that those who are badly housed and those who occupy the lower ends of the social scale are hardest hit by the disease and its wider impact.

“Front-line” workers – like nurses and bus drivers – are suffering the most, and all the evidence shows that the most densely populated places – London, New York –  have been hit hardest by the virus, and within those cities it is the overcrowded who are also most affected.

The World Health Organisation says that, “..inadequate shelter and overcrowding are major factors in the transmission of diseases with epidemic potential such as acute respiratory infections, meningitis, typhus, cholera, scabies, etc. Outbreaks of disease are more frequent and more severe when the population density is high.” This is exactly the same message delivered by Sir Edwin Chadwick in his 1842 “Report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain”, which led to the 1848 Public Health Act. Chadwick  concluded that, “…the various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom…disease, wherever its attacks are frequent, is always found in connexion with the physical circumstances above specified…” Some things have changed little in the past 180 years.

The latest English Housing Survey says that just over 1 percent of owner-occupied housing was overcrowded compared to 8 percent in the social housing sector and 6.2 percent for private renting. By contrast, around 52 percent of owners had more space than they needed compared to only 9 percent of social renters. Cambridge virologist Dr Chris Smith estimates that over 80 percent of Coronavirus cases are transmitted within the household, so the more cramped you are the more at risk you are.

There is also growing evidence from here and the USA that BAME folk are disproportionately affected by the disease. My hunch is that this is less likely to be a genetic predisposition, but due to the fact that BAME households are more likely to be multi- generational and overcrowded, and so a fertile breeding ground for the virus.

Imagine if you live in a cramped flat in east London with four children, or in one of the micro-flats of 15 square metres that I wrote about in this recent Intergenerational Foundation report. Perhaps you are living in one of the tiny flats created under Permitted Development Rights, surrounded by arterial roads and business parks and with single aspect windows facing north?  Imagine the hell of daily life. You go out for your daily exercise and finally arrive at the park (if there is one) and sit down to enjoy the fresh air, and you are harassed by the police, or called a traitor by Piers Morgan, even though that fresh air and rest might be the only thing between you and violence.

The space outside your front door is critical for mental and physical wellbeing during this crisis, yet the poor have less of it. In London there are almost ten million people occupying the space that held only 6.4 million in the 1980s. Is it any wonder that it is hard to keep two metres away from other people?  A Guardian/LSE  analysis shows that Londoners in deprived areas and those from BAME backgrounds have less public space and  less access to private gardens. A third of all land in the wealthiest 10 percent of London wards was private gardens and just over a third of the land was parks, compared to a fifth of land in the poorest 10 percent of wards being gardens and only a quarter being parks.

That is why the decision by Tower Hamlets and Lambeth Councils to close Victoria Park and Brockwell Park, forcing pedestrians and cyclists onto narrow (and thus more dangerous) streets and canal towpaths was a criminal decision, and  could only have been made by people with houses and gardens. That is also why we need to open the golf courses to the public!

It is this housing and class divide –  the inability of the well-housed to understand how the badly-housed live – that has been one of the most shocking aspects of this crisis, to me at least. On social media a Stasi-like pitchfork mob has appeared, calling for anyone who has the temerity to sit down in a public place to be named and shamed, or worse. I would bet that all of these keyboard warriors live in houses with gardens.

And what of the wider impacts of this crisis? All commentators agree that there will be added deaths and misery caused by cancelled operations, collapsing businesses, rising domestic violence and child abuse, alcoholism, obesity or malnutrition (yes both), mental health problems, not to mention the community discord caused by snitching on neighbours. Yet ministers have not yet received a report from civil servants about the wider impact of the most draconian curfew since the war. Incredible. Surely any competent government would require daily reports on the impact of their decision, in order to balance the health emergency outcomes against the wider damage to society and our civil structures?

It was ever thus. The poor will always suffer the most during any pandemic. In 1665 the plague killed a quarter of London’s population, but it was mostly the poor who died – the rich decamped to the countryside. Nothing has changed: today the well-off can  scuttle away to their second or holiday homes (even our Minister has done it) or hunker down at home with plenty of indoor and outdoor space and their Ocado deliveries, while the flat-dwelling poor are left with empty shelves and barricaded or over-policed parks.

After this crisis is over, perhaps we can have a reasoned debate about the health and other inequalities caused by bad and overcrowded housing? I will hold my breath.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network. See here)

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