The lockdowns have required significant sacrifice, but Covid-19 has served us with a timely reminder of how interconnected we all are, writes Chris Farrelly of the Auckland City Mission.
Amid this global pandemic, we witness the power and importance of community. Put simply, we have seen that our own efforts are futile without the efforts of others. We are reliant on our “team of five million” to follow lockdown restrictions, wash their hands, and keep track of their movements, in order to keep us all safe.
We have also seen some significant acts of compassion. The collective experience of this pandemic has helped us recognise our shared responsibility for, and commonality with, one another. It has given us license to reach out to strangers, in instances such as the Student Volunteer Army, who helped to ensure that the elderly and immunocompromised were able to have groceries delivered during lockdown.
We’re all affected by this pandemic in some way or another, and none of us have been left unscathed.
And yet, it’s important to acknowledge that this pandemic is not affecting us all equally.
Job losses, under- and unemployment are disproportionately affecting women. A staggering 90% of the people who lost jobs in the June quarter were women. We know from the Auckland City Mission’s own research that even prior to this pandemic, women were bearing the biggest burden of food insecurity and poverty.
This makes for a perfect storm, whereby women – particularly, Māori and Pasifika women – are subjected to the stresses of not having enough money to support their whānau. We see the downstream effects of this in our Food Security service. During the August lockdown, we broke our own record by distributing over 1,500 food parcels in one week, a volume greater than any other week outside of Christmas in our 100 years of existence.
As a country, we’re also grappling with significant health inequities, which Covid-19 has laid bare. Our one-size-fits-all approach to health continues to fail Māori and Pasifika, the impacts of which we witness at our Calder Health Centre each week. The same medical conditions that contribute to disparities in morbidity and mortality rates – such as respiratory illnesses and diabetes, diseases with links to socioeconomic deprivation – are the ones that make these groups particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
We’re also seeing students leaving school prematurely to work in order to financially support their whānau, who are struggling to make ends meet. In a recent interview, head girl of South Auckland’s Aorere College Aigagalefili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i highlighted that this was a reality for too many students before Covid-19, and the pandemic has increased the frequency with which this is occurring. There is perhaps no clearer demonstration of the way that poverty can be cyclical, passed from one generation to the next. A loss of education now limits future employment prospects for these students, who are simply trying to do best by their families in the face of incredible hardship.
These inequities are not new, nor are they inevitable.
Inequality as we’re witnessing it in Aotearoa is not a “natural” outcome of unevenly distributed talent. It is socially and politically-sanctioned through structures and policies that entrench intergenerational poverty for some, and the intergenerational transmission of wealth for others.
Extreme wealth and poverty are two sides of the same coin. The scale of socioeconomic deprivation that we are dealing with is linked to the ongoing concentration of the country’s resources in the pockets of those who are already doing well. Recent figures drawn from the 2017-18 Household Economic Survey paint a grim picture; while the wealthiest 10% own 59% of the country’s assets, the poorest half of the country own just 2%.
Of course, these figures ought to move us into action out of empathy and compassion for those who are disadvantaged by an unjust society – the same people whose wellbeing, we’ve discovered through this pandemic, is interconnected with our own.
But if that isn’t enough of a call to action, consider this – a more equitable Aotearoa is better for all of us. Research suggests that wealth inequality can undermine social cohesion, impede economic productivity, and lead to compromised functioning of representative democracy – the very things Aotearoa needs in order to navigate a Covid-19 world.
We are navigating unchartered territory with this level of need, and as a country, we’re at a crossroads.
Our trajectory of the past four decades has been one of an increasingly inequitable society, where the socioeconomic status of a family dramatically determines their children’s future prospects. As we’re witnessing at the Mission, and throughout Aotearoa, Covid-19 is significantly exacerbating this trend. And as a backdrop to a general election and two referenda, this trajectory makes our decisions, as voters and politicians, particularly crucial.
The speed at which we have rallied resources to address the looming threat of Covid-19 speaks volumes of our potential to take swift and decisive action against the threat of rising wealth inequality. As Wellington City Missioner Murray Edridge recently expressed, poverty must be treated with the same urgency as the pandemic.
In the lead up to this election, I challenge us all to take the time to imagine what we would like Aotearoa to look like in a post-Covid era, but also what kind of country we want our current and future mokopuna, descendents, to inherit. The decisions we make now – such as how we address income inadequacy and skyrocketing housing costs – will have reverberating impacts for decades to come.