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Inequality and changing social behaviours during the coronavirus crisis

Professors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson are social epidemiologists. Below is a transcript of their recording for our Humanism At Home series on ‘Inequality & changing social behaviours during the coronavirus crisis‘.

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Hello, I’m Kate Pickett.

I’m Richard Wilkinson.

Kate:
Together, we are the co-authors of two books, The Spirit Level and The Inner Level, both of which look at the impact of income inequality on the wellbeing of whole populations. As well as writing books together, we share a discipline. We are both epidemiologists, but we’re not the kind of epidemiologists that are of huge importance during the current coronavirus pandemic. We’re not infectious disease epidemiologists and we don’t do modelling of epidemics. Instead, with social epidemiologists, we study the wider social determinants of health and health inequalities. In our first book, The Spirit Level, we showed that income inequality – the gap between rich and poor – has profound effects on the health and wellbeing of whole populations. If you live in a more unequal society, you are more likely to have worse health – mental and physical health – your children are less likely to do well in school, more likely to become pregnant as teenagers, have lower expectations of social mobility. And the social fabric is torn apart by inequality, social distances between us are greater, we see higher levels of mistrust in a more unequal society, and these are big effects because they affect everybody who lives in society, and not just the poor.

Richard:
One of the really important things is the causal processes lying behind these relationships Kate’s described are largely psychosocial. The main effect I think of income inequality is not simply to create poverty and things like that. It’s to increase those feelings of superiority and inferiority in a society and the idea that some people are worth more than others. And that leads into all sorts of aspects of mental health. It leads one to feel insecure about self, one’s own self-worth. You know, some people are so important and other people are regarded as almost worthless. We all worry more about how we are seen and judged. And that leads to people finding social contact more stressful. Many people respond by withdrawing from social life, get depressed and so on. And also take more drink and drugs and so on to help allay those anxieties. Other people deal with those same issues by trying to boost themselves – sort of self-aggrandisement, they become narcissistic. And you can see both those patterns in more unequal societies – both sides, both those responses. We’ve been interested in during this period of lockdown that we’re still in at the risk. And of course, many of the responses, many of the effects of lockdown are very damaging. We’re all aware of the deaths and the problems of domestic abuse and so on, more people going to food banks. But there’s another side that interests us, which is people seem to be becoming more neighbourly, more friendly, more caring for each other, and government policies too. And there seems to have been a complete turnaround in government policies. So a government which was once thought of as on the far right, people suddenly started saying it’s doing quite socialist things. And of course many of these aspects and the changes in people’s behaviour, or rather like the changes in behaviour we see with greater equality: that increased social cohesion, that neighbourliness.

Kate:
So we’re seeing a real outbreak of social solidarity, friendliness – almost an epidemic that’s going alongside the coronavirus crisis. We’re seeing an outbreak of people being supportive to one another, helping one another out, being friendly. In our own village we were even able to get some much desired tomato seeds within about five minutes of posting a request on the village WhatsApp group.

Richard:
People have also listed the vulnerable people in the village and mates make sure people are keeping a check on them and making sure that shopping gets done.

Kate:
What’s really interesting is Richard posted a question on our village WhatsApp support group saying how nice it was that everybody was communicating so well, and wondering why we hadn’t done so before.

Richard:
In fact, people just said how lovely it was, rather than why we hadn’t done it before. But of course, it’s one of the aspects of the lockdown period that it would be nice to maintain afterwards – a more cohesive society, looking out for each other more. And I think there really are connections between the way greater equality produces these benefits and the way a lockdown has produced them. And that is that people become more sociable in these ways, more supportive, in all sorts of situations that are threatening, and famously, of course, during the Second World War, that sense of pulling together and governments of course, always trying to make us feel we’re all in the same boat together and pulling together. And often that is rejected as it was after the financial crash. But now I think people are feeling that. And I think the connection is that when we’re threatened, our interests are the same, we do start to feel in the same boat together. And of course, that is what that is the sense that inequality gets in the way of – destroys. So I think the way of maintaining this cohesiveness, after lockdown ends, is if we can increase equality quite substantially, very substantially. We must tax the rich. There are also all sorts of other things that must be done.

Kate:
Well, I think all over the world, we’re aware of groups who are thinking about how we build back better when all of this is over, how we need to think about creating a different kind of economy, fostering better things within society, focusing on wellbeing as a goal rather than simply on economic growth. And feeding into all of those plans and hopes is the idea that we have a chance for change here. We had it once before with the global financial crisis. We didn’t change business as usual after that. Now we have another opportunity. And if we’re going to face future pandemics, future crises in the world with resilience, then we need to focus on creating stronger social relationships within society, healthier populations are focusing on the wellbeing of all of us individuals and as societies as a whole.

Richard:
Interestingly, The Economist pointed out the huge rise in government expenditure, and also that historically, when you get these big rises in government expenditure, it rarely drops back to where it was before. So it may be that we will be spending more money on adapting the economy, perhaps the Green New Deal, perhaps not repeating the mistakes of austerity, realising the importance of public services. So we hope that those are some of the lessons learnt from this period of the pandemic.

Kate:
So we hope you all stay safe and well and keep on looking after each other. Bye.

Richard:
Thank you.

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