Overcrowded housing has helped to spread Covid-19 in England and may have increased the number of deaths, according to research by the Health Foundation.
Denis Campbell www.theguardian.com
People living in cramped conditions have been more exposed to the coronavirus and were less able to reduce their risk of infection because their homes were so small, the thinktank found. Overcrowding was a key reason why poorer people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds in particular had been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, it said.
Health Foundation researchers also concluded that overcrowding, together with other housing problems such as damp and insecure tenancies, had led to a rise in physical and mental health ailments.
“Since March many of us have spent a lot more time at home. For many, the quality of their home has made their experience of the pandemic even worse than it needed to be,” said Adam Tinson, a co-author of the analysis and a senior analyst at the thinktank.
“While some have weathered lockdown in large homes with gardens and plenty of living space, others have struggled in overcrowded and unsafe conditions. Overcrowding is associated with the spread of Covid-19, making self-isolation more difficult and allowing the virus to spread through more people if one becomes infected.”
Data for 2019-20 released earlier this month showed that just before the pandemic hit in March, 830,000 households in England were overcrowded, especially rented properties. That was 200,000 more than the number in that situation a decade earlier.
“People’s housing environments have affected their ability to shield themselves and others from Covid-19. People have been encouraged to stay in their homes as much as possible, but within-household transmission has played a serious role in the spread of the virus,” the analysis says.
“Overcrowding, which has been increasing in the years prior to the pandemic, makes it harder to self-isolate and shield, and may have contributed to higher death rates in poorer areas.”
He added that 8% of households with the lowest income lived in overcrowded homes, compared with fewer than 1% of those with the highest earnings.
Similarly, “Ethnic minority households are five times more likely to be overcrowded than white households, illustrating just one of the ways in which existing housing disparities are combining with the pandemic to further widen inequalities in health.”
People being forced to spend more time in overcrowded homes during this year’s various lockdowns has also caused or worsened mental health problems, especially those suffering distress. “Distress is generally higher for overcrowded households, and data from the pandemic period seem to show this intensifying during the more severe lockdown in April 2020, when 39% of people in overcrowded households were indicating psychological distress”, compared with 29% of those whose homes were not overcrowded, the analysis concludes.
“This analysis shows that mental ill-health has been a particular issue for those in overcrowded households during the pandemic, especially in the first lockdown. The chronic lack of affordable housing options, combined with years of reductions in support for housing costs, have led us to this point,” said Tinson.
The restrictions on movement and social mixing had also deepened loneliness among those living alone, the report said.
Major changes to housing policy, such as more secure private tenancies, reversing cuts to housing benefit and building more social housing, are needed to reduce the impact of poor-quality homes on people’s health, the Health Foundation recommends.