Guest contributor Alli McKelvey on how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing issues of social inequality and class disparity in the UK.
For many students, the coronavirus crisis is merely the cherry atop the cake of a long year of suffering at King’s. Exams are stressful enough without the threat of a pandemic looming over us. However, coronavirus is continuing to have a disproportionate effect upon working-class students.
With term cut short and exams moving online, the majority of students have returned home. Away from the distractions of London life and being isolated inside the house, boredom is setting in for many. Far from the worst fate a student could suffer, boredom is a privilege working-class students are not allowed.
KCL has introduced measures for early contract cancellation for those who have moved out of university accommodation. Unfortunately, this does not help the many students who will still be paying rent for private accommodation, despite not even being in the city, losing hundreds of pounds a month. Calls for the government to announce plans for rent suspension have fallen on deaf ears.
As most working-class students live, on average, in smaller houses, often with larger families, this may mean that they are forced to share a room with siblings, with limited or even non-existent quiet areas in which to study or sit online exams.
Many working-class students also stem from minority backgrounds. The government has been struggling to rationalise why BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) communities have been disproportionally hit by coronavirus, with the death rate for black people four times as high as that of the white population. I would suggest that this has nothing to do with genetics, but is instead a result of BAME communities being forced to cope with substandard housing and cramped conditions. At least 28 London bus drivers have died from coronavirus in recent weeks, most of whom were BAME. This is a shameful failure to protect those we rely on the most to help us get around this city.
This crisis has highlighted the reliance working-class students have upon university resources, in particular libraries and access to materials. Such students are forced to desperately attempt to complete assignments at home, often having to make do with inferior technology than better-off coursemates.
Money worries have increased. Many working-class students were employed in precarious part-time jobs; jobs which now no longer exist or necessitate students risk their lives to become a “key worker,” often on minimum wage. Many who have gone home have returned to households where the budget is already stretched, especially in single-parent households such as mine. This is before we consider any caring responsibilities that such students may have. For many parents, their children returning from university for an indefinite amount of time whilst not contributing to the household budget will be disastrous. It feels callous to describe my fellow working-class students as simply another mouth to feed for our families, but in reality, this is often what we are.
Personally, I decided to stay in my hall for the duration of the exam period. This was partly for selfish reasons; I knew that I’d be able to focus better and have a better chance of doing well in a university environment. But I also did so because I was concerned whether my mother would be able to provide for me, as she has not been able to work during the pandemic.
Now, given Boris Johnson’s confusing announcement on Sunday night, my mother – a cleaner – is being encouraged to go back to work. This is despite her having no access to PPE. The government is asking her to risk her health to clean for middle-class professionals, who are still allowed to work from the safety of their homes. Clearly, the government doesn’t value the lives of all its citizens equally. Coronavirus is a class issue. The virus is affecting everyone, but working-class students who will be disadvantaged the most. Even if the university cannot do anything to mitigate this, a bit of understanding would go a long way.