Social drivers

The amplification of inequalities and divides

Covid-19 may have been described as a ‘great leveller’ initially, but fairly quickly there were signs that this wasn’t the case – far from it. There is now more and more evidence clearly showing considerable inequalities in how people have been affected by the pandemic and by policy measures taken to address some of the consequences of the pandemic. This is true of health impacts but also of economic, social and psychological impacts.

Mortality rates for the most deprived areas in England have been approximately double those of less deprived areas. People from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have been disproportionately affected by covid-19 and this has sharpened the focus on structural race inequalities that have existed for a long time. Mortality rates have been significantly higher for men than women, however women have been affected by the disruption caused by covid-19 in a way that reflects gender inequalities within society, particularly with regards to work and childcare. Lockdown has also seen a rise in domestic violence. Disabled people make up two thirds of coronavirus deaths. This is not simply as a result of medical susceptibility, as campaigners highlight the rationing of heathcare, inappropriate use of DNR notices and lack of PPE. A recent review highlighted that people with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to die from covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. Mortality rates have been the highest for older people, especially for those in care homes.

Further social distancing and lockdown measures could strengthen negative stereotypes of older people often portrayed as frail and vulnerable (including in the media) and reinforce age-based divisions in society. While covid-19 has affected younger people too, particularly those living in deprived areas, in terms of education, mental health and employment, it will be important to discourage narratives that pit generations against each other. More generally, voluntary organisations will need to reflect on how they are able to respond to growing demand and whether the services they provide and how they deliver them reduce or increase inequalities.

Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter as a catalyst for change

Covid-19 has exacerbated racial inequalities and the need for change has never been clearer. Tackling racism and discrimination within the health and care system has become a priority, but addressing these issues is not the sole responsibility of current service providers. With health inequalities largely symptomatic of deeper inequalities in society, this is a much broader challenge. Covid-19 as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and protests around the world following the death of George Floyd have placed racial injustice in the spotlight. Both have prompted individuals to reflect on their attitudes and behaviours, and organisations on their practices particularly around leadership and employment. Both have given further momentum to the work of Charity So White, which drew attention last year to the underrepresentation of BAME people within the charity sector and the discrimination and racism that they face. The report Home Truths published by ACEVO and based on the experiences of over 500 BAME people working in the sector highlighted the extent of the issue.

In this context, questions about equity, diversity and inclusion are rightly here to stay . Organisations will come under increasing pressure from employees as well as funders to raise their game and take decisive action. But organisations attempting to tackle these issues may face a backlash as shown by the recent reactions on social media when Barnardo’s published its guide on white privilege for parents or when the National Trust discussed its links to slavery and colonialism.

Far-reaching changes in working patterns

Remote working isn’t new and over recent years more opportunities to work from home or on the move had become more frequent. However, the pandemic made this a widespread practice. Almost overnight, many people in roles that previously seemed impossible to carry out remotely switched to operating exclusively online. However, this shift has also brought to the fore inequalities as jobs that can be done remotely tend to be higher paying jobs, while those that require a physical presence are mostly lower paying or lower qualified jobs.

The potential for remote working has impacted on people’s views about where they want to live and whether they could move away from large cities to get more space for less money and avoid long commutes. The impacts of remote working on employers and employees as well as volunteers, beneficiaries and users are numerous and mixed. It can provide employees with extra flexibility helping them to juggle the demands of work and home life demands. However, it can also lead to people experiencing stress and poor mental health because of an inability to switch off in their personal time, and isolation through the lack of contacts with colleagues. Some employers have already announced that they will not be going back to their way of working pre-covid once the pandemic is over and are envisaging giving up their premises or sharing smaller spaces, many are considering a blended model which would allow more flexibility with employees dividing their time between home and the workplace. But they will still need to consider how they might address some of the pitfalls of remote working and how best to support employees.

Increasing trust in charities

Before covid-19, a survey conducted for the Charity Commission found that public trust and confidence levels had increased since 2018, but had not yet returned to pre-2014 levels. Public trust in charities has grown during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer – over half (54%) of respondents in the UK said that they trust charities ‘to do what is right’, a jump of 6% from January 2020 to April 2020. These findings chime with those in the last Giving Survey published by the Charities Aid Foundation – in August 2020, 56% of people agreed that most charities are trustworthy, compared to an average of 50% in 2019 and 48% in 2018. This is a broad trend seen across different age groups and social grades.

The way local and national charities have responded to the pandemic crisis, providing services to communities in times of need, may have contributed to this increase. The public has shown their support by donating more between January and June 2020 than during the same period in 2019, despite challenging times for face-to-face fundraising. We know that levels of trust in charities tend to fluctuate with external events. With the pandemic, many charities have gone above and beyond and been able to demonstrate how their work can make a huge difference to the most at risk. The challenge will be whether charities are able to meet the public’s expectations in a context that will see many organisations struggle financially. The longer term challenge is to see how levels of trust can remain high when charities are likely to be less in the spotlight. How they respond to broader issues in society such as climate change and inequalities may contribute to public perceptions in the future.

Community mobilisation in all its forms

The pandemic led to mobilisation across the country at a scale that hadn’t been seen for a long time. Very quickly local initiatives were set up to respond to the needs of communities and many people formed mutual aid groups to self-organise and support one another. Many examples involved activities around food and were aimed at those who were shielding or self-isolating. In most cases this happened with little help from any established organisation, at least in the beginning. Research has shown that as the pandemic evolved, some informal community groups moved towards more formal structures and processes, and some formal organisations adopted more informal ways of working.

The urgency of the situation encouraged greater flexibility, innovation and collaboration. Clearly in some areas community groups, charities, infrastructure bodies and the local authority have worked together to good effect. While mutual aid groups have been praised for what they achieved, the evidence suggests that they have been most successful in communities with more established local infrastructure and ‘anchor’ organisations (such as universities and hospitals) that have the knowledge, experience and capacity to support new initiatives. It is also important to note that research suggests that mutual aid groups may have reinforced existing inequalities in volunteer participation. Moving forward, it will be important to see how community mobilisation can continue and how the factors that contributed to effective mobilisation can be nurtured and developed, particularly in areas that are disproportionately affected by the virus.

Shifts in volunteering

In addition to the hundreds of mutual aid groups that emerged as soon as the first lockdown was announced, over 750,000 people signed up to the NHS Volunteer Responder scheme within days of its launch. In both cases, we saw the role of digital technology in reaching out to people and getting them on board. We also witnessed a rise in what has been called micro-volunteering – people volunteering to do small, time-limited tasks that can fit around existing commitments, such as work or family life.

Many who had not previously volunteered came forward to help, but some existing volunteers were no longer able to continue volunteering because of the social distancing rules or because they were themselves shielding. Digital exclusion has also prevented some people from volunteering, particularly those from low income backgrounds or those over a certain age. A recent evidence review has highlighted how volunteering is positively linked to enhanced wellbeing, from improved life satisfaction and increased happiness to decreases in symptoms of depression. This link is stronger for older volunteers. In the context of the pandemic, social isolation has been particularly challenging for them and having to stop volunteering may have contributed to this in some cases. Organisations will need to put in place an age-friendly and inclusive approach to volunteering to help sustain and widen their supporter base while exploring how they can create volunteering opportunities which match people’s motivations and expectations. Clearly in this context, thinking about the safety and wellbeing of new and existing volunteers, of all ages, will continue to be a top priority.

Moving forward

Questions your organisation might want to consider:

  • How has covid-19 impacted on your service users? Who might you need to prioritise? Is the way you are delivering services reducing or increasing inequalities?
  • How diverse are the leadership/board/staff/volunteers of your organisation? How can the organisation support staff and volunteers to engage with equity, diversity and inclusion? Does your organisation understand the different experiences of volunteers, staff and people who use your services? Does lived experience inform decision making throughout your organisation?
  • Will remote working continue post-covid for your organisation? How might it affect the culture of your organisation and the level of support you provide people (staff, volunteers and service users)?
  • What measures do you need to put in place to ensure your stakeholders (including funders, supporters and partners) continue to have trust in the work you are doing? How are you engaging with them and what information are you sharing with them?
  • What can your organisation learn from mutual aid groups? How might you be able to work with them in local communities?
  • How might your organisation be as inclusive as possible when recruiting volunteers, engaging and supporting people who are willing to give some of their time to help? How can you ensure they have a quality experience?