COVID and the cost of living crisis will collide this winter – the consequences will be greatest for the most vulnerable

The financial strain that many have been facing during the pandemic is compounded by the cost of living crisis. Credit: Lena Evans/Shutterstock

The cost of living crisis is affecting people all over the world. While it’s been building for some time, the fact that this crisis comes just after an ongoing pandemic only makes matters worse.

It is not surprising, but still worth noting, that the cost of living crisis will not be felt equally across society as a whole. For example, the toll will be higher for people living in disadvantaged areas, people on lower incomes, older adults, single parents, people with disabilities and people of ethnic background.

People from these groups are more likely to have had to reduce their gas and electricity use, struggle to pay their bills and face fuel poverty.

We also know that COVID-19, while challenging for everyone, is an uneven pandemic. People from minority ethnic groups, from the most deprived neighborhoods, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are at higher risk of dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID.

This will be the first winter since the pandemic began when many countries have scrapped all non-pharmaceutical protective measures, including face masks, testing, social distancing and self-isolation. After two and a half years of uncertainty, what we are about to see is once again unprecedented.

Unless we learn from past missteps, both in government responses to economic crises and to the pandemic, these two crises will collide and result in a devastating winter, particularly for the most vulnerable.

Some examples

When people are struggling to pay their bills, how can they be expected to buy COVID tests? Or stay home from work if they have COVID symptoms if they lose their wages?

Governments and councils in the UK are already setting up ‘warm banks’, which are public places such as places of worship or community centers that people can go to if they are too cold. There are a number of concerns about warm banks, not the least of which is that they treat the symptom rather than the cause of the problem.

However, we know that COVID spreads easily indoors, especially where large numbers of people mix for long periods of time. Another concern is that warm banks could increase the spread of COVID among those who are both most vulnerable to the effects of the virus and those most in need of a warm place.

Many people will already have been under increased financial stress during the pandemic due to lost or reduced income, making them more vulnerable to the cost of living crisis.

Research has found a link between recession and lifestyle-related health risk factors such as poor diet and obesity, particularly for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We know that obesity is a significant risk factor for getting very sick and dying from COVID.

In fact, past experience teaches us that economic crises can have devastating effects on the health of the most vulnerable. Austerity measures implemented in Europe after the 2008 recession led to cuts in public spending, including social protection, education and health. This coincided with a general widening of health inequalities in the decade from 2010 onwards.

As many countries head for another recession, how can we learn from the pandemic and the last recession to better weather these twin crises?

Shared Responsibility

I am a social scientist with expertise in public health and have led research on public experiences during the COVID pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, I have argued that too much responsibility has been placed in the hands of the public. The long-term solution to reducing the impact of infectious respiratory disease is less about washing hands and more about ensuring adequate ventilation of public buildings and transportation (although clean hands help, too).

Likewise, the long-term solution to the cost-of-living crisis is less about suggesting people buy new kettles and more about building warmer homes — and making them more affordable for everyone.

Of course, there are ways that we as individuals can help ourselves and each other. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw communities come together to support one another. For example, a large number of grassroots groups, often organized via Facebook or WhatsApp, worked to provide food and other essentials to people in self-isolation or after losing their jobs.

It is encouraging that some of these mutual aid groups are still active and have focused on helping people navigate the cost of living crisis.

But the ultimate responsibility rests with governments and society at large.

The solutions are complex

In the short term, we need to strengthen, not cut, resources and actions to protect public health. In the UK, for example, there are worrying signs that the new cabinet is looking to reverse hard-fought public health measures to reduce obesity.

Energy price caps can help mitigate the crisis somewhat, but they don’t go far enough. As Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist at University College London, argues, now is the time to address the longer-term problems underlying fuel poverty.

Universal basic income has been proposed as a possible solution to inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. But what about, as some have suggested, universal ground energy, where every household gets some of their energy paid for by the government?

One approach that might guide us is proportionate universalism, where those most in need receive the most support. Energy price ceilings alone cannot achieve this.

Payments for the most vulnerable are a start, but as we’ve learned from COVID self-isolation financial support, it’s not just about making money available, it’s quick and easy to apply for and access.

As with the pandemic, although we will all be hit by the cost of living crisis this winter, it might be more appropriate for the most vulnerable to refer to it as the “cost of living crisis”.

Growing social and economic inequalities in the North West of England have a direct impact on health

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