My agenda is, and has always been, access and inclusion. Austerity and the political climate has threatened this. How do we now make sure that coronavirus does not knock us off this track. And what are the routes for ensuring access and inclusion are core to any recovery plan.
My career history is in access. My passion is in inclusion and social justice. And much of my current work is in this space.
YHA has just signed off a strategy where access and inclusion to nature, outdoors, heritage and culture for all is our core priority. My work on Every Child Should is about every child – particularly the 500,000 who have the least access to public resource – enjoying enrichment, trips and a broad range of life experiences. And Cultural Inclusion is focused on equal access for disabled people as consumers, artists, workers and subjects in the arts and cultural sectors.
Like most of us I am looking for how this ‘day job’ is affected by the challenging times caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. Should this work be shelved and replaced with emergency efforts? And of course, yes - in part - we should. For YHA looking at how we manage our network and offer up hostels as a resource to the NHS. For Every Child Should providing lists of free resources for parents to support enrichment during a period of school closures.
But. As society looks to address the immediate and long-term issues caused by this unprecedented situation it is essential that equity and social justice are built in from the beginning of the ‘re-boot’ plans.
Today there is a call across multiple sectors for help and rescue packages across multiple sectors - travel, culture, charity, hospitality, care homes, airlines – the list is endless. And we have to trust that help will come from government, funders and from those commercial interests who have benefitted for so long and cannot now be allowed to batten down the hatches and say ‘I’m ok Jack’.
But when this help comes it must come with strings. No package should be given without testing how access, inclusion and diversity is written into the DNA of its recipients.
The Coronavirus is not an equal opportunities virus. It’s 5 key impacts will disproportionately affect those who already get the least access to public resources. Those who are the least visible in society. Those with least power.
5 key impacts of the Coronavirus
Illness and death
The virus itself is most dangerous for those with existing vulnerabilities. Many of them in groups who often have poorest access to health and care services - particularly when linked to household income and social capital. For some years disability campaigners and those working in support services for the elderly have raised concerns about how these groups are seen as ‘other’ or ‘disposable’ – and this has played out in cases of abuse and neglect in institutions and society more widely. Language that this virus ‘only’ tends to kill the old or those with chronic needs – combined with creeping concern about the views of advisors such as Cummings on eugenics – is contributing to a growing sense of unease.
The likely economic aspects of the pandemic are potentially as big a risk to health and well-being as the virus itself. Gig workers, those without savings, those in insecure or private rented accommodation, etc. all face the biggest challenges over the coming months and years.
While some short-term protections are appearing the long-term impacts are likely to be significant for these groups. Public services will be scaled back over years ahead to counter the short-term financial investment needed now. Recession is not guaranteed but likely and those with least financial capital will always do the worst during these periods.
The mental impact of at least 14 weeks isolation, social distancing and the ongoing fears of what comes next will have toll on all of us. But these things will particularly those who are already living the challenges of social isolation and mental health. Mental health services are already limited and a long-term investment unlikely to be at the top of the list in a health and care service focused on the beating virus.
Access to support services
From supermarkets to the local pub; from dentists to support with housing; from GPs to care homes. These are the support service that get us through our days. We are already seeing how these services in themselves are struggling and many of them won’t survive as businesses or charities. And we have also seen how those able to buy in bulk decimate supermarket shelves and how the rich can buy virus tests that health workers cannot access.
Schools – for so long been by so many as a route to exams – have now finally been shown to the public as what they truly are and always have been: one of the last universal community assets. As they close the wealthy buy in online virtual tutoring and stockpile food while Headteachers ensure that children who are protected by teachers – and get their one meal a day in classrooms – are supported.
Discrimination and civil liberties
All 4 of the above impacts have within them a significant degree of discrimination – not least in how the solutions proposed by civic leaders often come from a position of privilege that does not consider the realities for much of the population. The guidance on isolation at home for examples talks about the infected using separate toilets – a luxury many homes don’t have. Others talk about how they will be able to at least ‘drive to the Downs dahling’ to have wonderful walks (and this is fabulous to be clear.) But many households don’t have a car; or if they do they can’t afford petrol if their gig hours have been decimated.
But more than that we have seen a rise in hate. Chinese, Italian – the foreign flu. In blame and anger. These are dangerous factors.
And as we see the Bill being developed to bring in special measures are civil liberties at risk? How can we balance the need for state powers at a time of crisis with the very real concern about how these can be misapplied?
So how to keep a focus on the right thing?
In the urgent and immediate we cannot lose sight of the long-term vison for society. A revitalised museum and cultural sector needs to consider access from the start. When we talk about the rejuvenating power of the outdoors what does that mean for those who already currently access is the least?
So – three proposals:
- A Coronavirus Equalities and Access Oversight Commission
The urgent establishment of a Coronavirus and Access Oversight Commission. Independent of government. Not the EHRC. Drawing together diverse expertise from those communities with least power and influence – balancing lived/personal expertise with system and policy. Whose sole task for the next two years is to review and challenge policy decisions that will – sadly with some inevitably – often not start from a position of addressing diversity, access and inclusion.
This could be funded by each of the top 100 charities by income giving £50,000 and each of the top 100 corporations by income giving £100 000. They all talk about access and diversity as a priority, so it fits their ‘strategies’, public statements and objects/articles.
And most of this funding could/should run to commissioning smaller bodies and community members to research and review the impact of decisions and reporting back. £15 million into places that make a difference and nationally keeping us focused on equalities and access – what’s not to like?
- Bailouts for those that put equalities and access at the core of their recovery plans
For all funding and ‘bailout’ solutions to be awarded first to organisations that can demonstrate that they have and are taking steps to support their communities, their staff, access and are living inclusion. Not to take away from funding going to organisations that are in financial difficulty (and perhaps as importantly support going to those organisations that had plans in place that led them from extreme financial difficulty – controversial but maybe be a point to consider and the subject of another blog).
But maybe a little less bailout for those large bodies with well off shareholders that axed all staff at first possibility to maximise shareholder return? Not funding institutions that still don’t have disabled access as a priority? Perhaps checking to see whether the potential users of a charity think that it is worthy of funding? Less funding for those without diversity in their Board, plans and management? Not easy decisions but in a time when funding tight funders have a chance for their money to put equality at the core of thinking.
- For Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) to be ramped up not turned down during policy making over months ahead
EIAs should be a core part of any policy making at any time – but particularly when so much more is at stake.
Society is in a reboot period. Of course, beating virus matters. As does economic success. But equity and access must be the third pillar of any recovery plan. Not just to ensure gaps don’t get any wider but also to use this as an opportunity to rethink all that we do, all that we are and to ensure that all are part of our communities.