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Guest blog: The unequal impacts of COVID-19, by Naomi Eisenstadt

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Monday, 11 May, 2020

The Covid 19 crisis has changed all our lives, personally and professionally.  My five year old granddaughter lives in Bristol, just over 100 miles from where I live in Milton Keynes.  Ironically, the distance is irrelevant.  If she lived 5 miles away, I still could not spend time with her.  And the quality of time on phones and laptops is dependent as much on IT skills as on what to do with a five year old.   Having worked in nurseries early in my career, I am not usually stuck on how to have fun with young children, but I am pretty hopeless on social media.  I am comforted by the knowledge that my granddaughter has lovely parents who are enjoying having more time with her, even though it means squeezing in home working and all the usual household chores, which seem to expand as everyone is home so much of the time.  I miss my family, but basically I know they are safe.

The professional effects of the crisis are in sharp contrast to the sadness I feel in not seeing my family. Although my career is routed in early years education, my main focus over many years has been on families on low incomes.  While we know that the disease itself is no respecter of class or income, it is inevitable that those with least resources will suffer the most. The kinds of pre-existing conditions that make an individual more at risk, are all part of the ‘social class gradient’.  Poorer people tend to be less physically fit, and suffer more from chronic conditions and disabilities than the wider population.  Certain minority ethnic groups also seem to be more at risk, perhaps, in part, because they tend to be poorer, live in more crowded housing, in cities with high rates of air pollution?  The requirement to stay at home will have differing implications if you live in a large house with a decent garden, from those living in small flats.  Size of family also matters.  Changes to the social security system have discriminated against families with three or more children, limiting child benefit payments to two children only.  These changes came into effect long before the current crisis, but inevitably having to stay indoors with three or more children must be worse.
There has been considerable press coverage on the likely rise in domestic abuse as a result of the lockdown.  But the lockdown must have an impact more generally on family stress.  Numerous studies have shown that children are negatively affected by conflict between their parents.  Clearly the opportunity for conflict must be higher when choices on family activities are so limited.  

Finally, it all comes down to money.  Insecure income, zero hours contracts, changing shift patterns for low wages have all been a feature of our economy for at least a decade.  In work poverty has grown; nearly one in five poor children lives in a two parent household with one full time wage earner.  What happens when that one earner can no longer work? Money does not solve all problems, for individual families, or indeed, for the State.  But it makes choices and solutions more attainable.  Having savings instead of debts makes it more likely that a family can absorb the impact of shocks. 

So while I am missing my lovely granddaughter,  I am deeply concerned about the impact of Covid 19 on the millions of five year olds who don’t have a garden,  whose parents are struggling to stay afloat,  pay the rent, maintain a healthy diet, and home  school their children of various ages and stages of development. Early years practitioners now emerge as "Key Workers" and are continuing to provide support on home learning, but they too are faced with loss of income as well as the pressures of helping families on a the wide range of issues identified above.
Our social security system is not secure.  Perhaps policy makers can learn from this experience how to make a safer system for all in good times and bad.

Naomi Eisenstadt is a Vice President of Early Education

Further reading

Parents, Poverty and the State by Naomi Eisenstadt and Carey Oppenheim.   Policy Press.