By Ray Hudson, Durham University, UK
We find ourselves living in an unfamiliar and uncertain world; not one in which all that is solid melts into air, but rather one in which the air that we breathe to sustain life has become the carrier of a virus that for many has tragically heralded the end of life. As I was writing this, news flashed onto my iPhone that hospital deaths in England had exceeded 20,000, with as yet unknown numbers in care homes and in the wider population, as a result of NHS resources re-purposed to deal with Covid-19 at the expense of treating people with other diseases and illnesses, and of people failing to seek medical help for fear of catching the virus. It is not so long ago that “success” was being defined as keeping hospital deaths below 20,000. Need I say more?
But the effects of Covid-19 have had serious economic as well as human consequences. Major national economies, the UK included, have contracted at an unprecedented rate so that the world economy stands on the verge of a depression more serious than that of the 1930s. This has led to unprecedented levels of state intervention, effectively nationalising much of the economy and picking up the wage bill of millions of workers. Government borrowing has reached stratospheric levels, with effects that will be felt by future generations for years to come. In this, COVID19 has graphically illustrated both the fragility of the economy, one that had become dependent upon global flows of money, people and commodities, and, crucially, its vulnerability to biological processes that cannot be controlled.
Among other things, Covid-19 is both revealing and reinforcing existing socio-spatial inequalities within the UK, which I have described as endemic to the ‘Divided Kingdom’. I live in the north east of England, a region with three of the top ten hot spots in England for the virus – Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Gateshead. These are places that have suffered from the ravages of industrial decline and the effects of austerity policies that were allegedly to counter its worst effects but in practice amplified them. These are places with high levels of deprivation among the white working class, both those in employment and those who are unemployed, and many people with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to death from the virus.
Equally, the high rates of infection and death among members of most – though it’s important to state not all – BAME groups is again evidence of the way in which poverty, poor living conditions and unemployment, alongside high density urban living, provide fertile transmission grounds for the virus among populations with high levels of underlying health problems. In contrast, in places that are home to a predominantly white middle class population of generally healthy people, the impacts of the virus are both less widespread and have less severe consequences for most of those who do unfortunately contract it. Much has been made of the positive correlation between age and mortality from the virus, but it seems to me that the key relationship is between co-morbidities and mortality rates. Put simply, the older you are, the more likely you are to have underlying health problems but irrespective of your age, those with underlying health problems are more vulnerable to Covid-19 than those of the same age who lack those problems.
The uneven impacts of Covid-19, spatially and socially, are clearly raising major questions about the absence of effective policies to address issues of socio-spatial equity and justice. It surely can’t be right in a civilised society that it’s still a postcode lottery (and geographers have done a great deal to demand that there needs to be a ‘spatial turn’ in health research and policy development) that determines who dies of what and when in the uneven geography of life and death let alone testing. These problems have undoubtedly been exacerbated by a decade of austerity, which has seen the erosion of the capacity of the NHS to deal with them despite a major pandemic being high on successive governments’ lists of major risks. Tackling these inter-related legacies poses a major challenge for any future government, especially given the collateral damage to the national economy.
Following the science
The effects of Covid-19 are also revealing some broader challenges for universities and over major policy choices in and for higher education, especially as it now seems that the government sees itself as increasingly dependent upon the views of those with scientific (in it broadest sense) expertise; now it’s ‘The Science’ that matters in informing policy choices. Leaving aside for the moment that there is disagreement and debate among the scientific and medical community regarding the most appropriate policy mix to combat the virus, this appeal to the “The Science” cannot be allowed to disguise the fact that the policy choices are always ideological and political. There are also geographies of expertise to factor in as well including those who have public health expertise in areas of previous epidemics (e.g. West Africa and Ebola) and those who work with mathematical modelling of disease behaviour.
Nor should it be forgotten that policy choices for higher education are equally political. UK governments for the last decade have de facto forced universities to cross-subsidise high cost STEM teaching and research via recruiting overseas students paying higher unregulated fees, although they were not alone in pursuing such an approach. This funding model, already creaking at the seams, has been irrevocably broken by Covid-19, triggering a financial crisis that will impact differentially within higher education in the coming financial year and beyond. It will undoubtedly usher in new modes of blended learning and teaching, hopefully combining the best of residential face-to-face teaching and learning via remote IT-based platforms rather than resulting in a race to the bottom simply based on lowering costs. It will no doubt also lead universities to seek out new sources of income to support both research and teaching. In the short-term, however, for the coming academic year and maybe longer, as numbers of international students fall far below those forecast, universities will require financial assistance in one form or another from central government to prevent chaos in the system and the threat of universities closing becoming a reality. No doubt such assistance would come with strings attached – mergers between institutions and/or some reverting to a teaching-only mission, re-inscribing the binary divide though no doubt via a more politically palatable name?
But as well as a short-term fix to address the problems of the coming academic year, there also needs to be a radical and more fundamental reassessment of government policies towards higher education. This is particularly the case regarding high cost and high quality, often world leading, research on which the government has belatedly recognised effective policy-making relies – and not just in relation to health care and medicine – while there is also a need to remember that high-quality research is underpinned by and depends on high quality teaching to sustain the pipeline of researchers. The onset of Covid-19 effectively forced UK Government ministers and advisors suddenly to begin to give great prominence to scientific research and expert advisors, in the medical, natural and social sciences, in the war with the virus.
Was this the moment of a Damascene conversion? If so, and if Government ministers are serious about the importance of research, both in anticipating and preventing major crises as well as dealing with their consequences on those occasions that they do emerge, in providing the knowledge on which a sustainable post-Brexit national economy can be re-constructed and thereby help tackle more general problems of poverty and inequality, then they need to ensure that universities have the resources, material and human – needed to meet these challenges. Geographers, inherently inter-disciplinary in their approach, have an important role to play in teasing out the socio-spatial framings, consequences and legacies of such systemic changes in the relationships among society, economy and environment.
About the author: Ray Hudson is Professor of Geography at Durham University. A political-economic geographer, his research has focussed upon economic geographies, processes of combined and uneven development, and issues of territorial development. He has also held various senior leadership positions at Durham University, the RGS-IBG and beyond.
Hudson R (2013) Thatcherism and its geographical legacies: the new map of socio‐spatial inequality in the Divided Kingdom Geographical Journal 179: 377-381. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12052
Palmer J (2019) Geographies of expertise in the dieselgate scandal: From a politics of accuracy to a politics of acceptability? Area 00 https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12581
Smith S and D Easterlow (2005) The strange geography of health inequalities Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30: 173-190. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2005.00159.x