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Written by Professor Dame Athene Donald

What Price Equity in a Crisis?

Equity and equality in the time of COVID-19. Professor Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College, asks how this crisis can be used to good effect, and will the legacies of the pandemic highlight many more inequalities in our society?

‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ is a quote attributed to Winston Churchill (allegedly during the Yalta conference), amongst others. It is certainly a handy sentence to toss around at times like this, and has no doubt been used by many leaders around the world in the present crisis, to good and bad effect. However, it remains true that, when normal working is upended we have a moment to think about what we could do differently and, by implication, better.

This crisis is abundantly showing up the inequalities in our society, but we can only expect the short- and long-term legacies of the pandemic to highlight many more. Firstly, a parochial example from academia, where the evidence that journal editors are seeing a sharp decline in the number of submissions from women during these weeks of global lockdown is mounting. This has been interpreted as researchers with caring responsibilities – statistically more likely to be female than male – are overwhelmed by attempting to juggle all the demands on their time, whereas those without such household duties are, in contrast, freed from much else in the normal academic grind and can finish off papers with ease.

This analysis tallies with an earlier study of academic economists in the USA, which showed that women whose tenure clock is stopped for a year after the birth of a child are 22% less likely to get tenure, whereas men who claim that same year’s grace are 19% more likely to receive tenure. In this case the authors of the study note ‘These results imply that gender-neutral tenure clock stopping policies do not adequately reflect the true gender-specific productivity losses associated with having children. Men are more likely to be productive while their tenure clock is stopped and women are much less able to do so, yet they are treated equally under these policies.’ It is difficult not to suspect the current drop in submissions by women is similarly rooted in differences in domestic split of burden in families with children. Can society – way beyond academia – rethink caring responsibilities in the wake of the pandemic? And, incidentally, can university appointment and promotions panels think harder about metrics and incentives to factor in pandemic-induced inequalities in career progression?

I have already proposed that ‘that for every child-month you are responsible for (whether you are the father or mother, but you need to have had the responsibility; for dual-parenting couples, simply make it every two months of childcare) you can claim an allowance of either one paper, one grant or one book chapter, with some similar formula for other personal circumstances to offset the opportunities for those who have it ‘easy’ right now.’ Others may have different ideas about how to offset disadvantage, but it is a debate we need to have urgently. It is a clear example of where apparent gross differences by gender due to the pandemic may offer a platform for radical change within our universities.

The current marked high level of mortality rates for BAME workers in the healthcare sector (much higher than for white workers) points to another, literally vital, source of difference. What is the origin of this inequality? Analyses are ongoing to work out why they are so badly affected. I have heard (anecdotal) reasons given, ranging from the likelihood they occupy high density living conditions providing fertile ground for the virus to spread to the fact that BAME workers may feel less comfortable protesting about inadequate personal protection provided in hospitals. Geneticists have pointed out how unlikely it is to be down to ‘simple’ genetics, given that BAME categorisation hardly describes a single, well-defined gene pool. Can there be any hope that we will do better at avoiding institutional and societal racism going forward, learning from what has happened in the past miserable weeks? Can we ensure that future public policies factor in the diversity of our population?

Finally, I would like to turn to another well-recognized phenomenon. While parents struggle to home-school, how well they are able to do this highlights large-scale societal inequalities. Parents whose own education was inadequate or truncated will be less able to assist children; homes where good connectivity is not available may struggle to avail themselves of what schools are providing by way of online education; where there are many siblings squabbling over limited bandwidth or living-room table space, the challenge escalates again. In other words, the middle class children will come out of lockdown having gained yet more ground on their less advantaged peers. Government plans to reopen parts of primary schools soon are unlikely to address this fundamental problem.

So, how can this crisis be used to good effect? Firstly, society needs to recognize these issues, not pretend ‘equality’ and ‘equity’ fortunately coincide. The UK government has recognized the last problem to some limited extent, by facilitating vulnerable children being able to stay in school. However, the Department for Education’s own data shows that only 1 in 20 of these children actually are attending. But secondly, they need to work out what they are going to do about it once the lockdown ends.

Given the huge sums of money the Chancellor of the Exchequer is already spending on keeping businesses going through a range of schemes including furlough, as well as the sudden injection of cash the NHS is (at last, one might say) receiving, what money will be left to support the disadvantaged who have lost months of schooling and thereby fail to progress? These children may now always struggle with basic reading and arithmetic as a result. The cost to the economy in later years in functionally illiterate adults will be large – but may be seen as ‘someone else’s’ problem. In that way, the cost of providing additional 1:1 teaching for children who have lost out – during the pandemic or for any other reason – is seen as a charge on the Department for Education, not as a reduction in lifetime public expenditure due to unemployment benefits, mental health support or court appearances. We do not, in our society, ever take such a long-term cost-benefit analysis.

What all three of these present sources of unfairness demonstrate is that a paradigm that assumes some norm – implicitly usually white, middle-class and probably male – and does not factor in the fact that everyone and their circumstances are different, often in ways that have nothing to do with innate ability or value to society, is going to lead to societal problems. Many are reaping the unfortunate benefits of this right now.

  • About the author

    Professor Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College

    Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she ...   Learn more

    Professor Dame Athene Donald