I’ve done a reasonable amount of the lockdown socialising over the last few weeks: emailing people I haven’t been in touch with for a while, calls with family and friends, a couple of Zoom birthday parties. In the latter, there have been both verbal and visual of the realities of being stuck in the house. We see the inside of kitchens and living rooms, and we talk of how glad we are to have a garden, a bit of space. Children come in and out of shot, doing their thing, and where grown adults have ended up back at their parents, they are sat in spacious conservatories or kitchens. Lockdown isn’t too bad if you have room.
Both Coronavirus and the response is deeply regressive. At work, those at the bottom of the pile are more likely to have to continue going out to work, delivering, emptying bins, driving buses, staffing shops; the managers are working from home because they can. Up to the median earnings, the more people earned before, the more resource the government will use to help them. Many at the bottom have been made redundant, with income dropping to the minimum benefits levels. Even the US has a more progressive system here. In the long-term, the lockdown’s effect on the economy will cause more job losses, again disproportionately for those in the lowest paid sectors (think waiters, cinema attendants and so on). We already know that being poor, or black means your more likely to get seriously ill or die. Children’s education will suffer, but the poorest kids will suffer the most. Those working from home with space and facilities will be more productive than those without. The post-lockdown ideas on transport will also reproduce these inequalities.
Where I lived as a young person, and where my family are from and still are, represent examples of this (even though they are by no means the worst). In my 20s, after a period of sofa surfing, I got a foothold in London in a ‘house in multiple occupation’ in Leytonstone. This was a bottom-floor, kind of a flat but not, consisting of a living room, a bedroom, and a fragile lean-to built onto the back with a sink and cooker: the bathroom was upstairs, shared with two other households. Two of us were in the bedroom, and for a time two more in the living room, and all had to walk through the bedroom to get to the ‘kitchen’. Neither social distancing nor working from home would be in any way practical in this.
As a teenager in the 1980s and 90s it was little better. The house I grew up in (above, just before it was knocked down as part of the 2000s slum clearance programmes) was a 60 square meter or so terrace opposite a derelict mine: even in the 1990s and 2000s houses could be bought there for less than £10k. There were five of us, and sometimes seven, and at first all the children shared one room. Smaller bedrooms were created by splitting one of the two upstairs bedrooms and converting what would have been the small back kitchen into a bedroom, while the kitchen was now in the living room. My room had room for a bed, but no desk or wardrobe. I didn’t have a space for doing homework, and all three children couldn’t have done homework in the kitchen at the same time: we didn’t have a dining room or dining table, but a breakfast bar style section that could seat 3 or 4 to eat. In fact, I never did homework at home, but did it at school before the main day started. We didn’t have a garden, and most socialising was done on street corners: I would be one of those described now as ‘feral youths’, who are now being policed for lockdown offences.
At the same time, my grandparents were in another example of poor housing unsuitable for lockdown. After working their whole lives in the pottery industry, they were in a council flat on the 10th floor of a tower block, with no access to green space at all. Indeed, photos of this block are now used to show the problems of inner-city Britain (see the Guardian), and are now where the council houses refugees and asylum seekers. Weirdly, some of the photo agencies have photos of these blocks as being ‘built to accommodate the local housing crisis and to fulfil the social housing requirement’ or representing ‘the increasing population, housing crisis and over crowding [and] immigration’, as though these new poor migrants were the first to find themselves in this unsuitable accommodation.
For both adults and children, then, the effects of the lockdown will hit hardest on the poorest. There is a digital divide: some have the kit at home to work or learn from home, and some don’t. Some children will have home schooling with parents that have lots of time and energy, but some will be home alone every day. Some have space, and some are trapped in tiny homes in abusive relationships. A fairer lockdown would take all this into account.
P.S. And so on it goes, with the new plans (10 May) that those in factories and so on should go back to work, while those who can work at home should stay at home. This appears to suggest even more of the poorest people required to go out, while middle-class people continue to work at home.
What happens to their children isn’t answered: are we to assume that they can be left at home unsupervised? At what age, and what about other safeguarding issues? From the very beginning, it has not been clear what employers will do if they need staff in, but those workers are stuck at home because the schools are shut. The employee can ask to be furloughed, but the employer doesn’t have to offer this, and can offer unpaid leave instead (see Working Families). For this to be done safely and fairly, the home conditions described above will have to be taken into account: leaving a child at home to be schooled by a nanny, or a teenager alone in a suburban semi to get on with school work is one thing, leaving a teenager alone in a tower block or sink estate is another entirely. Will any of those making the decisions care to swap places?