“Covid might break the pattern of growing inequality” – An Interview with Danny Dorling

February 19, 2021   By Katy Oglethorpe interviews Danny Dorling

Danny Dorling is a social geographer based at the University of Oxford. He has published more than a dozen books on issues related to social inequalities in Britain and around the world, most recently: Finntopia: What we can Learn from the World’s Happiest Country. Danny will be speaking at our Stronger Things on 11 March, as part of a three-day event. Sign up here.  

What does the UK’s experience of the Covid pandemic tell us about inequality?   

The Covid pandemic has been a story of inequality in so many ways.  

When Covid first arrived in the UK it was brought in by people returning from skiing holidays and breaks in Ibiza. So at first it was found in the places these people were returning to – more often than not posh places. It hit the headlines so strongly partly because it affected celebrities and senior politicians – there was immediately a lot of Covid in both Kensington and Westminster.  

It took two to three months to diffuse to other places. Today, we can see that it’s affecting people dramatically differently depending on their social class. After age, class is the most important factor determining whether you’ll be infected and be most likely to die from Covid. 

“After age, class is the most important factor determining whether you’ll be infected and be most likely to die from Covid.”

Your class influences the type of job you have – and whether you have to be in contact with other people given the work you do. The ONS produced statistics last month showing the difference in mortality rates between professions, showing that people working in elementary occupations or caring, retail and other service occupations were three (or more) times more likely to die from Covid.  

Class also affects where you live. Covid spreads far more easily in crowded cities. There’s also the psychological and health effects of living in a one or two-bed council flat eight storeys up – and the impact on children who aren’t going to school and have no access to a quiet space or a computer. I have a PhD in computer visualisation, know how to work computers and can afford them and I’ve only just managed to ensure that my children each have access to a screen to use for home school. Some parents will be at their wits’ ends.     

Could Covid affect our attitude towards inequality?

One ‘good’ thing about Covid is that we’ve all lived through it – it is a common experience. 

There are limits to how much privilege can protect us. For our richer students at Oxford this pandemic has also felt terrible and bad – even though their health and economic risks have been much lower than middle aged people in working class occupations.

We have suddenly become dramatically poorer as a country – and we’ll start to feel this. But we may also see a collective response to having been through something together.

“We may also see a collective response to having been through something together.”

In the aftermath of the last ‘great ‘ pandemic (1918-1919) the tide turned and the UK became more politically and socially inclusive – it may be that this current pandemic, albeit it’s smaller and not accompanied by war, is what’s needed to break the pattern of growing inequality.   

What can the UK learn from countries like Finland in terms of becoming more equal and happier?  

Finland is one of the most equal countries in terms of distribution of income. It’s also been ranked the world’s happiest country for three years in a row – both for its total population and for the immigrants living there. It’s also one of the world’s most socially mobile countries – of all the countries in the world, only in Denmark does it matter less who your parents are for your prospects in later life.  

The UK is currently bottom of the pack of comparable countries when it comes to our levels of inequality. But as the bottom child in what is in effect a class of around 30 European countries, we shouldn’t be trying to copy Finland immediately. We could start by looking at a country in the middle of the table, like Germany. Germany isn’t a radical socialist utopia – it’s a boring, conservative state. But it’s far ahead of us in terms of social cohesion and how it funds its public services. Look at the £350 million promised for the NHS during the Brexit debate for example – Germany spends over a billion pounds a week more than we do in the UK on its health service and it’s just seen as a norm.  

Does community power have a role in tackling inequality?   

I think real community power is in some ways the opposite to [David Cameron’s] Big Society vision. I think you unlock community power by involving the state as well. If local government don’t have enough money to build a community centre for people to come together then community power will struggle to get off the ground in the first place.  

“I think you see more community power in more equitable countries.”

If we look globally – I think you see more community power in more equitable countries. In Japan for example everybody takes responsibility for cleaning the pavements free of snow or rubbish outside their house; in Norway every child visits the bedrooms of all their classmates at the beginning of the term.

In the UK and the US there is a certain amount of ‘fear of helping out’ – we have a big charity sectors but less of a norm of helping our neighbours.   

What will you be speaking about at Stronger Things? 

I’ll be talking about social equality – what the trends are, how Covid has affected this, what countries have stronger communities than others – where people trust each other more and why that might be.  

And I’ll be talking about Levelling Up – how you actually do it – how it was done in the UK in the past and how it is achieved elsewhere in Europe. 

Danny will be speaking at our Stronger Things event on 11 March. Sign up here.  

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