We are accustomed to the phrase “health is wealth”, and the coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on just how important our health is. However, the outbreak is also showing the inverse of this phrase, “wealth is health”, to be more critical than ever.

Many, including the Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove, argue that the ‘virus does not discriminate – we are all at risk.’ However data from the Office of National Statistics indicate that the poor are more seriously affected by the virus than the rich. Twice as many people are dying from coronavirus in the most deprived areas of the country than in the least deprived areas.

Of those who have died from coronavirus, 91% had an underlying health condition. But, as The Health Foundation makes clear, “the risk of developing a long-term health condition, or multiple long-term conditions, is strongly patterned by where you live and your level of deprivation.” It argues that the coronavirus pandemic brings “health inequalities into sharp focus”, and the toll of COVID-19 falls unevenly across society.

There is some good news about the impact of the pandemic on our health…

Many people have found that the lockdown has given them the opportunity to do more exercise. Many are increasingly exercising during the lockdown. At the beginning of the lockdown a third (32%) of the UK population said they were exercising or walking more than they did before the outbreak. By the end of May, 48% of people are exercising more, while only 14% are exercising less, or have stopped altogether. Also, the majority of adults (65%) believe exercising is helping with their mental health during the lockdown.

 

…but health inequality persists

While people from all backgrounds are tending to exercise more during lockdown, there are significant disparities between higher and lower socio-economic groups. The most explicit difference is income. When asked about their exercise habits, 63% of people earning more than 41k per year say they exercise more than they did before the outbreak, but only 39% of those earning less than 21k are exercising more. Higher earners are also less likely than low earners to say that they are exercising less or to have stopped altogether.

 

Education is also a factor in socio-economic wellbeing. Those who have university degrees or higher are more likely to say they are exercising more (55%) since the lockdown than those who are educated to secondary level (or below) (45%).

The pandemic has highlighted the essential status of many so-called “unskilled” jobs, like those in the care sector, which often do not require a university degree. Unlike many professionals with university degrees who are working from home during the crisis, these people continue to commute to work, often working longer and more grueling shifts. Without the commute to work, those who are highly educated and working from home tend to have more time to exercise, while many carers and hospital workers don’t have this luxury of more time, which helps to explain why less educated groups are exercising less (12%) compared to those who have university or higher education (8%).

The trend continues with homeowners and renters. Homeowners are more likely to say they have increased how much they exercise compared to renters. Although a relatively small difference, it is still important to highlight as renters are more likely to be economically vulnerable and living in poorer conditions, according to the Social Market Foundation.

 

On the whole, people are exercising more than they did before the outbreak, which is one of the few good outcomes of the pandemic. But the sting in the tail is that social inequality permeates this surprising health benefit of the coronavirus crisis. Higher socio-economic groups are more likely to benefit from more exercise as a result of the outbreak than lower socio-economic groups. In this way, the pandemic seems to be further exacerbating health inequalities. Recognising this concern, the Health Foundation’s report on the long term impact of COVID-19 on public health warns, ‘one thing is certain, unless these current events are viewed through the lens of inequalities, we risk ending up in a place of even greater injustice than when we started.’


Isabelle Thomas

Isabelle is a Research Assistant on the Corporate Reputation team, having joined Populus in March 2020 after completing her undergraduate degree in International Relations.