Young man asleep on sofa with blanket and hood. Photo by Rex Pickar on Unsplash

Covid-19, the built environment, and inequalities

16 July, 2020

Gesche Huebner

Reading time: 4 minutes

We are all facing the same storm but we are in very different houses. Covid-19 has not only brought into sharp focus the relationship between housing and health – but it also laid bare the extent of racial inequalities in the UK.

Remember the first days of lockdown when the nights were still frosty, the supermarket shelves empty, and the narrative around how we were all in this together? Well, nights are warmer now, shelves largely filled as in ‘pre-Covid’ times, lockdown rules are applied differently to Government advisers and the general public, and the virus itself is rather undemocratic in whom it affects.

A colleague used the nice metaphor “we are all facing the same storm but we are in very different boats” to describe the impacts of Covid-19. Well, we might also be able to say “We are all facing the same storm but we are in very different houses”. We already know that a substantial proportion of the English housing stock doesn’t meet the Decent Homes Standard, is energy-inefficient, and small.

Overcrowding has been linked to negative health outcomes as have too cold homes. Of course, when everybody has to stay home continuously with most workplaces, schools and public indoor spaces shut, this will increase exposure to ‘unhealthy conditions’, affecting both physical and mental health. More people are continuously together in a confined space so the virus might be more easily transmitted; anyone with symptoms in an overcrowded household will have a difficult time self-isolating. There isn’t anywhere to escape to from a cold, damp, mouldy home. But also from a mental health perspective, things can be expected to get worse – where are children supposed to do school work or play, where is anyone supposed to find some privacy, where is anyone supposed to have a moment of silence (or be able to escape domestic abuse)? What about the worry of not being able to afford more heating or generally more energy use?

Overcrowding

Data have shown that there is a link between overcrowding and Covid-19 death rate. Covid-19 has not only brought into sharp focus the relationship between housing and health – but it also laid bare the extent of racial inequalities in the UK. People from black, Asian, and other minority backgrounds are more likely to die from Covid-19,  and children with parents from these ethnic groups experience worse mental health impacts. Around 2% of White British households experience overcrowding, compared with 15% of Black African households and 30% of Bangladeshi households.

The Centric Lab

The Centric Lab analysed data on Covid-19 deaths, the density of BAME (Black And Ethnic Minority), and the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) which is an overall measure of deprivation based on factors such as income, employment, health, education, crime, the living environment and access to housing within an area. They found a strong positive correlation between the IMD and Covid-19 deaths, between BAME density and IMD, and between BAME density and Covid-19 deaths, in London boroughs. High level of deprivation, high BAME density, and a high level of Covid-19 deaths were also associated, though to a lesser extent, with greater levels of noise, air, light, and thermal pollution.

As Araceli Camargo from the Centric Lab put it:

it is not a matter of being BAME that is a health risk, it is the conditions and environments BAME communities are forced to engage with that is the health risk. In other words, BAME communities are more at risk due to the environments they are forced to live in due to racism and inequality.

It is shocking that we have such inequalities in our society. For all of us working in the built environment, we must acknowledge that many of us have overlooked this problem and we must now urgently rise to address the challenge of creating healthy homes and living environment for everyone.

The Centric Lab:

Centric Lab is a mission-based research driven organisation working to reduce biological inequality and elevate health in urban environments. Centric Lab works with private, public & third sector organisations to create policy, strategies and plans to protect and elevate health. Its lab director and co-founder is Araceli Camargo, a cognitive neuroscientist.

For more information, see their website and / or contact the Centric Lab on email.

Banner photo credit: Rex Pickar on Unsplash

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