The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a dirty truth that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. It’s a truth that housing folk are very familiar with, but it has mostly been ignored by government, the media and opinion formers. The truth is this: bad housing kills.
Even before the crisis struck, we knew that the most well-off people lived almost a decade longer than the least well-off. By definition, poorer people are likely to live in poorer housing. But now it is also the poor who are suffering the most from Covid-19.
According to the Office for National Statistics, deprived areas have double the mortality rate of well-off areas and the death rate is six times higher in major cities than in rural areas. BAME people have suffered most of all, with a third of all deaths.
Consider a few facts: up to 17 April in England and Wales, 36 people in 100,000 died from Covid-19. But this hides a vast disparity between rich and poor areas.
In leafy South Hams the death rate was four per 100,000, but London had a death rate 22 times higher with 86 deaths per 100,000, and within London the death rate ranged from 43 in Kingston to 144 per 100,000 in Newham. Why should Newham have over three times as many deaths as Kingston?
There are two likely answers. First, Kingston has 4,700 people per square kilometre, Newham has more than double that at 9,700. The higher the density, the higher the risk of catching coronavirus.
Second, 64% of homes in Kingston are owned and 9.5% are social, whereas in Newham, 42% are owned and almost three times as many are social – 27%. Within London as a whole, almost 15% of social homes are overcrowded compared with just 2.5% of owner-occupied households.
Not surprisingly, the latest available figures show that overcrowding in Newham is almost three times worse than in Kingston – 18% compared with 6.7% respectively.
Of course, other factors are at play. Many poor people in Newham will be working in dangerous occupations, but Cambridge virologist Chris Smith reckons that over 80% of transmission is within the home, so if you bring the virus home in Newham it is more likely that the rest of your household will succumb to it than in Kingston, where people have more space to work and isolate from each other.