“I Can Hear Another Ambulance”: The Rise of Exponential Inequalities During COVID-19 (Episode 1)

by | Jun 6, 2022

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Interviewer: Oxford Human Rights Hub

The Oxford Human Rights Hub (OxHRH) aims to bring together academics, practitioners, and policy-makers from across the globe to advance the understanding and protection of human rights and equality. Through the vigorous exchange of ideas and resources, we strive to facilitate a better understanding of human rights principles, to develop new approaches to policy, and to influence the development of human rights law and practice.

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Human rights experts tell stories of inequalities from around the world, revealing how these inequalities have been exacerbated during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. This is Episode One of a four-part series. The series takes a deep dive into whether equality law is cut out to protect the most vulnerable in times of crisis, and if not, then why not and what can we do about it? This podcast series is part of the Exponential Inequalities project, led by Shreya Atrey as the Principal Investigator of the British Academy Leverhulme Small Research Grant on Equality Law in Times of Crisis.Producer, Presenter, Sound Editor: Christy Callaway-GaleExecutive Producers: Shreya Atrey, Meghan Campbell, Sandra FredmanAssistant Producers: Mónica Arango Olaya, Gauri Pillai, Natasha Holcroft-EmmessTranscript and show notes: Sarah Dobbie


EPISODE 1: “I can hear another ambulance”: The Rise of Exponential Inequalities During COVID-19

Alysia Blackham (0:00)

I can hear another ambulance. I’ve never heard this many ambulances. I think it’s just COVID— constant. It’s just— it’s grim.

Christy Callaway-Gale (0:11)

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the world and has deepened pre-existing inequalities. But this isn’t the only global crisis the world is experiencing and it won’t be the last.

Shreya Atrey (0:22)

What— what seems to be the— the gathered wisdom on this is that this is the first of many kinds of crises that we are facing. Democratic crises are one. We’re also facing the climate crisis, and perhaps there are future pandemics to come.

Christy Callaway-Gale (0:39)

And coexisting with all these crises, which are causing deepening inequalities, there’s the law. Equality law. Law which is supposed to protect people against inequalities and discrimination.

Shreya Atrey (0:52)

So, we wanted to devote our academic energies to think about, “Well, the pandemic has happened. This is how inequality was exacerbated. This is how equality law responds to it. This is how it falls short.” But we wanted to say, “What happens when similar crises occur in the future?”

Christy Callaway-Gale (1:12) 

You’re listening to RightsUp, a podcast from the Oxford Human Rights Hub. I’m Christy, Podcast Producer at the Oxford Human Rights Hub, and in collaboration with Shreya Atrey, Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford,[1] we’re putting together a special four-part series on “Equality Law in Times of Crisis”. We want to know what we can learn from the way equality law has served us — or not — during crises like the pandemic, so we can prepare better for the future.

Christy Callaway-Gale (1:55)

We’ve been speaking to human rights experts in Kenya, Brazil, Australia, the EU, the UK, and Ireland who are studying equality law, legislations, and policies, and the way that they interact with crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic. These experts, and others you’ll be hearing from throughout the series, are all part of a research project into exponential inequalities, essentially looking at the way inequalities grow and compound during crises. This project is coordinated by Shreya Atrey, Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford

Shreya Atrey (2:29)

So, in the early days of the pandemic, and since then, frankly, until now, what we’ve seen is that there’s a regular reminder that the pandemic has contributed to exacerbating existing inequalities. And this was being thrown around all around from people who was— who were working on say, gender and— and studying [the] exponential rise in violence against women from [the] early days in the first lockdown in China, to people who are studying, say, health inequity. So, across the board it seemed to be that everybody was bringing up that the pandemic had done something to existing inequalities, it had worsened them. We wanted to understand, if everybody was saying that, what, if anything, could equality law do about it?

Christy Callaway-Gale (3:17)

But before we get into the way equality law interacts with crises, and the effect this has on people’s lives, I want to pause for a moment to think about the very basics of how we understand equality and non-discrimination, and the purpose of equality law more broadly.

Shreya Atrey (3:33)

Protected characteristics in equality law are what make equality law equality law. So, by protected characteristics we— we mean identities such as race, religion, or protected markers, even if they’re not identities, such as ethnicity, language, culture, sex, gender, sexual orientation.

Christy Callaway-Gale (3:57)

So, protected characteristics — like ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation — are all things people might suffer discrimination or inequalities because of, and equality law is there to guard against this. And this is where we need to make a distinction between direct discrimination and indirect discrimination. Let’s stick with direct discrimination first.

Shreya Atrey (4:24)

Direct discrimination is discrimination such as less favourable treatment which happens on the ground of something. So, say, if you’re denied employment, even though you’re the best candidate for the job, just because you’re a woman, you’ve been denied that employment because of your gender. So, that’s direct discrimination. Somebody’s invoking your— your sex slash gender as the reason for denying your employment. That’s direct discrimination.

Christy Callaway-Gale (4:50)

And what about indirect discrimination?

Shreya Atrey (4:53)

This is— a common example of indirect discrimination is, for example, you have a policy for wearing a uniform at educational institutions or in certain kinds of employment — say, in airlines, where air hostesses and air stewards wear a particular dress — and that uniform policy basically bars people from, say, exhibiting religious insignia. And that could be discrimination on— which is indirect in nature on the basis of, say, someone’s religion, because although the policy is neutral, that— it applies to everyone, it only impacts, say, somebody who, say, wears headscarves, so it impacts Muslim women in particular, but it’s indirect because Muslim women are not targeted directly, but it’s indirect in nature.

Christy Callaway-Gale (5:42)

And often discrimination isn’t just happening on the grounds of one single characteristic, such as your sex or gender. Multiple characteristics can compound to create an even more unequal experience of the world and of crises too.

Shreya Atrey (5:55) 

So, if you happen to be a black woman, you seem to have been impacted worse by the pandemic, say, in relation to health inequity or in relation to access to reproductive justice.

Christy Callaway-Gale (6:07)

So, multiple characteristics influence what we’re calling “exponential inequalities”,  exponential inequalities basically being the way inequalities grow more and more rapidly. In our case, we’re looking at how this happens in times of crisis. And crises themselves can come together and interact to compound people’s experience of these sorts of inequalities too.

Shreya Atrey (6:31)

We’re also interested in intersecting crises and not just intersecting grounds. We want to see how the pandemic as a crisis also relates to ongoing crises, such as [the] democratic deficit, or [the] climate crisis, or the austerity crisis in the UK and elsewhere. And we want to see how these different kinds of crises build onto one another to make things even worse.

Christy Callaway-Gale (6:59)

These sometimes intersecting crises affects all of us, but they affect those with pre-existing disadvantages even more.

Victoria Miyandazi (7:08)

So, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the issues regarding access to land and housing in Kenya, particularly for informal settlers and slum dwellers.

Christy Callaway-Gale (7:19)

This is Victoria Miyandazi, Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and Law Lecturer at the University of Emdu.[2]

Victoria Miyandazi (7:26)

In Kenya, informal settlers have always had it difficult, particularly in terms of evictions and forced evictions without proper notice, and at improper times — when it’s raining, for instance, in times of crisis, and so on. So, already we have this problem. And then we have the COVID-19 pandemic, which obviously led to a lot of people losing their jobs, a lot of people being distorted in terms of how they live.

Christy Callaway-Gale (7:58) 

Victoria goes on to tell us about how in Kenya there were lockdowns and curfews during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that these evictions would sometimes take place during the curfews, which could end up leaving people homeless. And on top of that, travel restrictions and hostile police could make things even worse.

Victoria Miyandazi (8:16) 

In terms of the measures the government have put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, one of them was, basically, a locking-down of also passageways, roads, and so on, to defend from one county to the other. So, we would find that even if evictees had a place to go outside of Nairobi, they couldn’t be able to travel because there was that closure, as it were, of— of how— from county to county, so they couldn’t travel. And not just that, you’d find that there was hostility, as well, because you’d find that once the curfew period hit, then the police would be out to look for those who are breaking the curfew period regulations.

Christy Callaway-Gale (9:00)

Lockdowns, quarantining, and social distancing have been vital to help stop the spread of COVID-19. These same measures, though, have aggravated the conditions of vulnerable populations. These include women, children, disabled persons, refugees, asylum seekers, homeless persons, migrant workers, rural persons, and traveling communities.

Christy Callaway-Gale (9:22)

Working from home has also brought about unequal consequences in varying ways for different groups of people, as described in relation to the EU by Jule Mulder, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol Law School.[3]

Jule Mulder (9:37)

So, I think there’s quite a lot of discussion around the way— how those working from home requirements during COVID-19 have impacted different groups across the EU. Now, what we can say with quite some certainty is that it did have a different impact on men and women because of the simple fact that the stay-at-home orders weren’t just work-related — they were also related to childcare and schools, and those children were at home, and there’s a significant— significant evidence that, across the board, women were taking up a lot more of the additional childcare than fathers.

Christy Callaway-Gale (10:23)

Focusing on the UK, Diane Elson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Essex,[4] reveals the unequal impact COVID-19 has had on different groups in UK society.

Diane Elson (10:34)

So, the impact on health has been worst in the most deprived areas of England, Wales and Scotland. Two thirds of the people who died from COVID-19 in March-July 2020 — that first phase — were people with disabilities. Death rates from COVID-19 have been higher for black, Asian, and minority ethnic people than white people.

Christy Callaway-Gale (10:57)

Meanwhile, in Ireland, COVID-19 and the response the government took meant that Irish society had some particular challenges to face. Mark Bell, Regis Professor of Laws, Trinity College, Dublin.[5]

Mark Bell (11:10)

So, I think that Irish society faced some unusual challenges. So, one example where there would be a comparison with the UK was on education. So, at two different points in the pandemic, not only were schools closed, but that also included schools that provided support for children with disabilities, and I’m aware that the UK was quicker to sustain some of those services. So, for— both for the children with disabilities, and also for those who care for those children, particularly their parents, that imposed a very considerable burden upon them.

Mark Bell (12:01)

I think, kind of, what became evident over the duration of the pandemic was that there were also impacts on groups such as young LGBT people, who having to spend long times in one’s home environment could be problematic (if your home environment wasn’t a supportive one), and I suppose, even more dramatically, the situation of domestic violence, and it’s clear that women experienced more domestic violence during this period.

Christy Callaway-Gale (12:42)

As in Ireland and other parts of the world, in Brazil cases of domestic abuse have risen during the pandemic. The term “shadow pandemic” has been adopted in some countries to refer to the catastrophic effect COVID-19 has had on levels of domestic violence. Marta Machado, from the FGV Law School in São Paulo,[6] describes the ways the pandemic has contributed to a rise in domestic abuse in Brazil.

Marta Machado (13:06)

So, [the] COVID crisis affected women in Brazil in many different ways and, as happened in other in other countries, we had, like, a situation of isolation with the aggressor, and at the same time, some of the services were even interrupted. So, we knew that some shelters in Brazil were just closed, they were less comfortable to seek help in hospitals. So, we really got to a dire situation.

Christy Callaway-Gale (13:35)

Brazil’s right wing populist President, Jair Bolsonaro, a self-declared pro-life activist, exacerbated this dire situation for victims of sexual abuse.

Marta Machado (13:46)

During the pandemic, where the government was exposed to a very bad handling of the pandemic in Brazil, they started a moral battle against abortion rights. So, it was like— it was almost a paradox because that was the moment that sexual abuse increased. Theoretically, we had to give more access to women to abortion services, to after-violence care and etc. and that— that was exactly the— they— they did exactly the opposite. There was a decree that inserted [an] abortion total ban as a goal— as [an] official goal of the government, and then there were two ordinances that aimed at putting more obstacles to women to access legal abortion services.

Christy Callaway-Gale (14:38)

And then there’s Australia, where pre-existing issues with age discrimination in the workplace have been exacerbated by COVID-19, as described by Alysia Blackham, Associate Professor at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne.[7]

Alysia Blackham (14:51)

Age discrimination has been a challenge in the workplace for many, many years, and that is the case in Australia, it’s the case in the United Kingdom, it’s probably the case in nearly every country — I don’t think any jurisdiction is immune from the challenge of age discrimination at work. What we saw though, in the COVID-19 pandemic, is that all of the inequalities, all of the structural challenges in our workplaces, were heightened or made worse. And that was partly the way that the pandemic played out, but it was also embedded by the way governments responded to COVID-19. So, the incentives and the programmes that were designed to support workplaces often served to exacerbate those inequalities at work.

Christy Callaway-Gale (15:40)

Existing global inequalities have also been highlighted further during the pandemic due to so called “vaccine wars” fuelled by nationalism. Kate O’Regan, Professor and Director of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford,[8] describes how existing patterns of global inequality have been brought into high relief through the unequal distribution of vaccines.

Kate O’Regan (16:03)

The process of vaccine distribution in response to the pandemic has been uneven and unequal. If one looks, even today, at the figures of where vaccines have been administered, per thousand members of the population, you can almost see the pattern of income inequality that exists across the globe perfectly represented in patterns of vaccine distribution.

Christy Callaway-Gale (16:34) 

Crises are so broad and so sprawling, as these examples have shown, that we found we needed a broader definition of equality law than the more traditional definition.

Shreya Atrey (16:45)

So, I think traditionally, equality law refers largely to either constitutional or domestic statutory law, which prohibits discrimination in the forms that we discussed — direct discrimination and indirect discrimination — and these gamut of provisions are normally found either in the constitutions and then perhaps developed in statutory law. That’s what we normally refer to when we say, “equality law”. But I think this project goes slightly broader than just looking at these statutory provisions and thinking about policy as well. So, we really do take law and policy of all general kind, as thinking about all of them has something to say about equality, and they’re all necessarily trying to do better on equality, and I think we do expand the range of what we mean by “equality law” in that sense.

Christy Callaway-Gale (17:35)

In this episode, we’ve been hearing some of these diverse range of perspectives. We’ve heard about pre-existing inequalities and the ways these were exacerbated during crises, turning into exponential inequalities. But now we want to know whether equality law and equality-related legislations and policies are up to the task of tackling the sorts of exponential inequalities we’ve been hearing about. Join us for Episode Two, where we’ll be asking just that.

Anna Lawson (18:04)

If the Equality Act had been working effectively, there wouldn’t have been any litigation.

Kelley Loper (18:08)

So, to be clear, Hong Kong equality already fell far short of addressing inequality even in so called “normal times”.

Christy Callaway-Gale (18:20)

This podcast is part of a special series under the Exponential Inequalities Project. The project is led by Shreya Atrey, as the Principal Investigator of the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant on “Equality Law in Times of Crisis”. The Producer and Presenter was me, Christy Callaway-Gale, Assistant Producers, Mónica Arango Olaya, Gauri Pillai, and Natasha Holcroft-Emmess. Transcripts were produced by Sarah Dobbie and with music by Rosemary Allmann. Thanks to Meghan Campbell and Sandra Fredman for their generous feedback and guidance.


[1] “Shreya Atrey” University of Oxford, https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/people/shreya-atrey.

[2] “Dr Victoria Miyandazi” University of Embu Law School, https://law.embuni.ac.ke/?p=457.

[3] “Dr Jule Mulder” University of Bristol, https://www.bristol.ac.uk/people/person/Jule-Mulder-7c8e65f6-db39-473b-926b-546e3f1f9f84/.

[4] “Professor Diane Elson” University of Essex, https://www.essex.ac.uk/people/elson04603/diane-elson.

[5] “Professor Mark Bell” Trinity College Dublin, https://www.tcd.ie/research/profiles/?profile=bellm1.

[6] “Marta Rodriguez de Assis Machado” FGV Direito SP, https://direitosp.fgv.br/en/professor/marta-rodriguez-de-assis-machado.

[7] “Associate Professor Alysia Blackham” University of Melbourne, https://law.unimelb.edu.au/about/staff/alysia-blackham.

[8] “Professor Kate O’Regan” University of Oxford, https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/people/kate-oregan.

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