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‘A Poor Country with a Few Rich People in it’: Renowned Inequalities Expert Speaks Out as Bereaved Families Give their Accounts of ‘The Unequal Pandemic’

A new short film reveals the heart-wrenching stories of those who lost their loved ones to COVID – and exposes the politics of poverty behind the crisis

Bereaved people hold photos of loved ones lost to the Coronavirus. Lobby Akinnola, second on the left, lost his dad, Olufemi Akinnola, a frontline worker for the charity Mencap. Photo: PA/Alamy

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The UK is a “poor country with a few rich people in it”, according to one of the world’s leading poverty experts – setting the UK up for failure ahead of the next pandemic. 

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, author of several landmark Government reviews on poverty, told the launch of a new film on inequality during COVID – the Unequal Pandemic – that the crisis “exposed the underlying inequalities in society”. 

“People said it will be the great leveller,” he said. “But that’s not what’s happened in the past… UK life expectancy was flat-lining before the pandemic.”

Lobby Akinnola’s late father, Femi, was “a stickler for the rules”, he says in the 25-minute film, which was premiered in Parliament by its co-creator Labour MP Debbie Abrahams on Wednesday night. “He trusted the system,” Akinnola says. It failed him.

The film features a range of families as well as experts on the frontline during the pandemic. Clinician Dr Rachel Clarke says that, in March 2020, she experienced a feeling she’d “never had” in all her years working on wards: fear. 

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“We had to try to be brave,” she says. “But that experience will haunt me forever. I had a paper mask and a plastic pinny. That was completely at odds with what the public were being told.”

Respirators provided for staff often didn’t fit their faces: “I was told I could get one from Amazon myself. It cost about £300.”

She and other staff are convinced that at least one nurse caught Coronavirus on the ward and died.

Prof Marmot says many of the failings before and during the pandemic are clear to see. “Pub landlords might not be the best people to buy our PPE from,” is one clear lesson. 

“How about properly funding public health?… Do I think that running Test and Trace through local public health services would have been better than the private sector?” he asked. “It couldn’t have been worse.” 

In one devastating moment in the film, Karren Frasier-Knight speaks about losing her twin sister, Paula Greenhough. “I lost half of me – half of me is gone,” she says through tears. 

Lobby Akinnola had a similar experience. He says: “When I got the call from my mum that dad was no longer with us, my world ended in that instant. I fell on the floor. Everything fell apart.” 


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Liverpool-based Francesca Michaels speaks about her mum, Billie Michaels, who was on benefits, and lost her life to Coronavirus while parties were going on in Downing Street: “It was a conveyor belt of death. She was cremated in a body bag.”

For Prof Marmot, poverty is something that “impedes freedom… Don’t get rid of environmental and social protections: get rid of poverty”. 

Yet the poverty expert says his 2020 recommendations on tackling inequality were “ignored” by the Government, which failed to implement them.

Some of the figures speak for themselves: child poverty in Finland is 11%; in the UK, it is closer to 30%. “We’re a poor country with a few rich people in it,” he told the audience.  

Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, presented it even more bluntly: “If you take London out of the UK’s stats, we are basically like Alabama. Our poor are poorer than almost everywhere else in Europe.

“We still think we rule the world. Yet my [European] colleagues look at us with growing incredulity… The Government has signed up to sustainable development goals – and yet we now have politicians in this country wanting us to be like Belarus in pulling out of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights]. This is a country that’s gone stark raving mad.”


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Professor Clare Bambra noted that Labour made “huge strides” in reducing child and pensioner poverty and health inequality – making the UK “the envy” of many nations in Europe in the early 2000s. “We’ve gone so far backwards since then.” 

One solution, for Prof McKee, is to bolster democracy: “We don’t have a system of accountability in the UK. If we want proper accountability in the UK, we need proportional representation and constitutional reform.” 

Prof Marmot will soon co-chair a new global group on inequality with renowned academic Joseph Stiglitz. Among the themes likely to be analysed is vaccine inequality, as barely a third of the world’s population has had even one COVID jab. 

“The US Government spent £10 billion on vaccine development – but the pharmaceutical firms won’t allow it to be distributed for free,” he said. 

Professor Kate Ardern was clear that “there will be a next time”. The lesson from the film, as Lobby Akinnola concluded, is this: “We’re only as strong as the weakest in our society.”

‘The Unequal Pandemic’ was made in collaboration with Good Guys Productions and is supported by the COVID Bereaved Families for Justice group

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