“We need to ensure that the health gap, which too often reflects the wealth gap in our society, is closed for good”
Leanne Wood MS, Plaid Cymru's equalities spokesperson, responds to the inequalities exposed by coronavirus, laid clear in the Chief Medical Officer for Wales’ special report
Originally published in The Western Mail on 4th February 2021
The worst-off people in Wales have been twice as likely to be hospitalised due to Covid-19 than the wealthiest.
This isn’t just anyone’s analysis. This is according to the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Frank Atherton, in a special report published last week.
He’s not saying coronavirus checks out people’s bank balances before deciding who to infect. It’s rather that being from a deprived area has an impact on housing, education, employment and more, which in turn have an impact on health.
People from Wales’ most deprived areas are more likely to have poor health than people from more affluent areas, and people with poor health are more susceptible to the deadly effects of coronavirus.
This isn’t “new” news – that lack of wealth can lead to poor health and early death – but the pandemic has shone a light on inequalities that already existed. It’s reminded us that the impact of living in poverty is more than just an economic question – it affects health as well.
The report also reveals that women and minorities have suffered worse health and economic impacts in Wales.
I keep hearing that the virus doesn't discriminate, but it does – Dr Atherton’s report confirms that it hits the worst off the hardest.
What’s worse, many of the outcomes that result from the inequalities that have been exposed by the virus, were avoidable.
The report says “we now also understand that many of these health inequalities are not inevitable, they are health inequities, or systematic inequalities between social groups that are judged to be avoidable and unfair.”
What has caused this avoidable inequality? It might be that there are barriers to accessing health care – perhaps because some people are more marginalised from society, dismissed, or discriminated against. What if they’re homeless? Or unable to communicate their needs effectively? Consider all those with neuro diverse conditions who end up in our prisons or street homeless. So many wouldn’t be there had the right support and services been in place.
Dr Atherton also talks about the importance of policies being targeted at those most in need, as a way of addressing this avoidable inequality. This means the policy needs to benefit the right people.
Policies are set by government. The Welsh Government must understand and own the fact that some of their policy decisions made during the pandemic have adversely affected some people’s outcomes.
The decision to move hospital patients into residential care homes without a coronavirus test was a devastating example from early on in the pandemic.
Could key decisions have been made that would have limited the fast spread of the deadlier second wave? Back in November, I led the call from Plaid Cymru to provide additional financial support to those areas of Wales that were experiencing high infection rates – mainly post-industrial communities. We saw that one of the flaws in the current system was that people couldn’t afford to self-isolate. The people who most needed to stay at home – those who had come into direct contact with infected people - were going out to work and mixing in their communities, because they couldn’t afford not to.
Our role in opposition is to scrutinise policy and suggest improvements that should be made. We cannot go back to how things were prior to the pandemic, but there are lessons that could and should be learned from this pandemic.
There are two statistics that stand out for me in this report. One is that life expectancy is nine years shorter for the most deprived group of men in Wales compared to the least deprived. But an equally damning statistic is that the gap in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived was even greater at 18.2 years for men and 19.1 years for women. This means that the number of years spent in ‘good health’ were nearly two decades less for men and women living in the most deprived areas of this country, compared to men and women in the least deprived areas. So not only are people in deprived areas living shorter lives, but a greater proportion of their lives are spent in poor health.
Covid-19 has affected everyone, but this report shows that it has disproportionately hammered the poorest communities in Wales - areas like Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent, which have had the highest infection rates in Wales.
The health inequities highlighted in the report are made worse by the economic impact – twenty-two per cent of workers have lost a fifth or more of their income during the pandemic and that has inevitably pushed many to the brink financially and emotionally. The financial uncertainty faced by workers and many small businesses has not been good for mental health and it's good to see that is recognised in the report.
This is a pretty stark reminder that we cannot and will not just go back to how things were. The future for people in this country’s most deprived communities has to change. The health gap, which too often reflects the wealth gap, must be closed for good.
We know that these avoidable health inequalities between social groups are unjust and unfair. The challenge, as ever, is not just to identify the problems but to offer solutions. A Plaid Cymru government would be committed to talking poverty and the wealth inequalities that result in health inequalities.