Wrapping up this series of Tea and Talk, Episode 7 features Talat Yaqoob — Independent consultant and researcher, and a member of the RSE Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission. We discuss how Covid-19 has highlighted inequalities across various sectors across the country, including the economy, employment, healthcare and childcare. What steps can we take to ensure society is fairer for all in the future?
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Please note transcriptions are auto-generated so may feature mistakes.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the RSEs Tea&Talk podcast series, a program inspired by the coffee houses of the 18th century, where great thinkers would come together to discuss ideas and matters of the day. I’m Rebekah Widdowfield and I’m Chief Executive of the RSE, which is the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and it’s Scotland’s national Academy.
Our mission is to advance learning and make knowledge useful. And as part of that, I’m having a series of conversations with some of Scotland’s leading authorities on a whole range of topics, starting with exploring different perspectives on the Coronavirus pandemic, the conversations are all with fellows of the RSE who are keen to share their expertise and experience.
This week, I’m speaking about the impact of COVID-19 on inequalities with Talat Yaqoob, independent consultant and researcher and a member of RSEs post-Covid futures commission. So we’re not in a coffee house. We’re both in our own homes, which explains the occasional dips in sound quality. [00:01:00] I’d encourage you to grab yourself a drink or something. Sit back and listen to one of Scotland’s leading experts. Talk about things that matter.
So Talat, you’ve spent much of your career to date working to tackle inequalities, including in the labor market. What has COVID highlighted to you and to us in terms of how these inequalities are experienced and manifests.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:01:28] Well in, in terms of inequalities that I’m working on, COVID 19 has amplified what we already knew.
So those who are furthest away from access to opportunity, access to power, wealth are feeling the impact of COVID-19 the most. Now an example of this is black minority ethnic communities who are most likely to be living in poverty are black communities in particular, two times more likely to die as a consequence of COVID-19.
Most of them are key [00:02:00] workers and one of them are exposed to risks. You’ve got issues around those who are on low pay, who are more likely to be made redundant as a consequence of COVID-19. You’ve got the issue of digital exclusion whilst we are getting to do exciting things through technology, because we have the privilege of digital literacy and laptops and technology at our fingertips.
Those who do not have digital literacy, those who do not have access to broadband, those who do not have the financial stability to be able to buy technology have been isolated out the community even more. So what we’re finding is those people who suffer inequalities are suffering even more.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:02:43] And that’s a really interesting point that these are not new inequalities.
It’s more that they’ve come more to foreign. And I think come more to the foreign public debate as well, and actually increasing intervention in the media and maybe in public conscience as well. I mean, you’ve expressed your frustration that it takes a global pandemic to see the [00:03:00] changes required in our society and economy.
Uh, why do you think that is? Why is inequality is now maybe more at the forefront of people’s agenda than it might have been in the past?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:03:08] Well, if it’s hugely frustrating, I’m not going to lie on somebody who’s been working on this for a long time. I’m trying to suppress my frustration and just look at it as an opportunity to be able to have dialogue.
But that is quite difficult sometimes. But the reality is that we’ve all had a feeling of isolation. I think we’ve all understood what it’s like. Not to be able to have choice. Because choices had to be made for us we were restricted in our movement, we were restricted in where we can go, who we can see. Now if you’re somebody who lives in poverty and can’t afford to get to the other side of the city.
If you’re somebody who’s disabled and a meeting, isn’t an accessible building. We have had a very small insight into a lack of choice in our everyday life. And I think that has, I hope has created empathy that lasts longer. But it’s also [00:04:00] highlighted the communities that are ignored and unheard because we’ve had a feeling of being ignored and unheard.
Now it shouldn’t take personal expedience to be able to empathize with people. But often that is the case. What we need to do is for that to be translated into how policy is meaning we can’t allow the feeling of empathy and solidarity to be forgotten. As restrictions are lifted. The way in which communities have come together has been phenomenal, but we can’t forget that just because our favorite drive-thru has opened again. And we feel like we’ve got a little bit off freedom again.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:04:37] So how do you think we can sustain that empathy and solidarity as we returned to not necessarily normal, but returned to our usual lives?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:04:45] I think the best thing we can do. And this is the case, regardless of COVID-19 is here from lived experience hear from those who are having to still shield.
So freedom hasn’t been created for them. Restrictions haven’t been [00:05:00] lifted for them. Let’s hear the voices of those people who have been made redundant. Let’s hear from those people who are having difficulties accessing social care support, that’s required. The most impactful thing you can do is hear from lived experience to be able to understand the realities of society for a wider range of people.
The most important thing is if we can keep empathy and an understanding and appreciation of the other in our minds as individuals, but most importantly, in the minds of those who have influence and are making policy and are in a position of power. If they are able to have solidarity and are hearing from lived experience, understanding and appreciating the importance of that lived experience, having a voice and equal voice in policy making, then we can learn our lessons from COVID-19 and transform society.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:05:55] And it’s one of the things that, I mean, obviously a lot of groups have been established to look at the impacts of [00:06:00] COVID including the RSEs own, post COVID futures commission. And as you know, that we are very keen to that group does hear from the lived experience, but how do we do that to best effect,
How do we do it in a meaningful way and how do we do it in a way that is respectful and recognizes the time that that also takes from the people who are contributing to these kinds of programs and exercises.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:06:19] The majority of my work has been about policy participation. How do we, how do we create participatory models that don’t just ask people to give us a story about their life? See, thank you very much. No, the grownups will make some decisions on your behalf. Actually it has to be a partnership of equals. So the first thing is looking at who’s around the table and if it’s the same old faces and I’m guilty of this too.
I don’t need to be on three or four different groups. It’s my job to say, well, actually, here’s somebody who can give you an insight that you’ve not heard, but it’s vital right now. So it’s about widening who’s around the table and it’s a vote investing and resourcing lived [00:07:00] expedience. So one of the most important things we can do is not simply ask people to participate in a survey, but actually outreach identify people and then pay them for their time and their expertise.
If we ask people to participate who are already experiencing inequalities and often not always, but often those will be financial inequalities. And then we ask them to give us their expertise for free. We are simply increasing and exacerbating the inequality that we face. Lived experience needs to be given the parity of esteem to expertise derived by having a PhD.
So that lived experience is the PhD in poverty in Scotland. So let’s get that around the table with equal footing, to academics researchers and those who are usually around the table and let’s pay them for that expertise that could be transformational and how we create policy and how we respect [00:08:00] lived experience.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:08:01] Another example from your work to date, where you feel that lived experience has been brought into the policymaking and policy decisions in that way.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:08:10] I think I’ll be honest. I don’t think it’s been done as well as I would like it to. I would love to say I’m a glass half full person, but I tend to be half empty a lot of the time, which isn’t great.
But there’s the reality is that, , I don’t think it’s been done fully the way that we would want it to be done and I certainly would want it to be done, but we are seeing some changes. For example, when we were creating new social security measures in Scotland. We saw the Scottish government creates a lived experience panels, and those were invested in those were resourced and they were given support around them.
So that lived expedience was being considered. When the policy implementation ranking new social security measures were created. That work to an extent there’s definitely been some challenges and there needs to be lessons learned from that on how we can do it. Well. [00:09:00] But I think we know more than ever.
There is an acceptance, certainly that it can’t be the same faces and the same voices and that there needs to be investment in outreach. So that’s a real positive step. And now it’s for people like myself to see, well, now that you know that, how are you going to resource it and how are we going to make it a reality?
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:09:19] I mean, one of the things we’ve also seen, I think in terms of maybe an expression of empathy is a shift in the narrative. So we’ve moved from sort of talking about low skilled workers to talking about key workers. But I mean, at the same time, you’ve highlighted it in some of your previous articles. The, on the UK government’s list of key workers.
Most of those are paid under 24,000 pounds a year, and many of them are on zero hour contracts. So how do we, how do we make this more than a rhetorical and more than a narrative shift in terms of the way we talk about people and more than going out as we were on a Thursday night and clapping, how do we sort of embed that more as practice rather than rhetoric.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:09:57] Well, yeah, whilst I appreciate the [00:10:00] clap for the NHS or the badge for the NHS or, or whatever, symbolic gesture we’re on. Simply a pay rise or the NHS investment is required for the NHS. And we need to do something about zero hour contracts. We provide no stability. We provide no rights in terms of knowing, how much income is actually going to be coming into your home at the end of the week.
We need to create more security or workers, and simply there needs to be a pay rise. We have identified that key workers are saving lives and putting their own lives at risk every day when they go to work during COVID-19. So surely the least we can do is create policy around the labor market, which gives them more security. and investment in their skills investment in their every day by a pay rise.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:10:52] interesting how it is more of a discussion again about universal basic income and what that might look like and how you support people in the. In and out of the [00:11:00] workforce, actually,
Talat Yaqoob: [00:11:01] Absolutely. I think Universal basic income is one way that we can create transformative change overnight.
I was quite disappointed that the economic recovery plan actually didn’t state that universal basic income was a way to go forward. So I think that requires more conversation. And the other part that I’ve been really keen on is the idea around a wellbeing economy. We have the First Minister on record saying that she wants to consider a wellbeing economy.
What would that look like? But she’s a supporter of it. And there’s a lot of work globally around wellbeing being a core of the economy rather than GDP. If we can have a conversation that is about wellbeing, as valuable as a value entity within the labor market is a valuable entity of part of our economy than those who are farthest away.
I have some of the lowest wellbeing become at the center, sort of the conversation about our economy. And if we can turn that on its head, then that we can make the fastest change rather than those who have benefited, continuing to [00:12:00] always better.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:12:01] And I guess again, that point about they’re moving away from the talking about it and the commitment to something to actually, well, how do you put that into practice in forms of what a well-being economy really looks like in practice?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:12:12] Exactly. It’s enough rhetoric. Now it’s time for policy action.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:12:17] I mean talk, talking about work more generally. I mean, obviously there’s been quite significant shifts in the way that many of us are working with a move to sort of working at home for those who can with use of digital with maybe more flexible working as people have tried to combine work and childcare, and there’s obviously both opportunities and challenges around that, but, but how do you think we can ensure some of those wider changes in the way of working can help address inequalities rather than reinforce them?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:12:42] Absolutely. I think it’s been fascinating. How quickly organizations have managed to adapt to flexible working, working from home. and this understanding. I mean, I don’t know how many of us have been on a zoom call or a Microsoft teams call and we’ve accepted that child’s might appear. [00:13:00] And so it’s understanding that we have layers in our lives.
There’s suddenly this acceptance that your whole self can come to work. Because you are still a carer or a parent, you still perhaps have your own health issues when you come to work. So there’s been more of an acceptance of that. And I think as we return to the status quo, I’m hoping we don’t return to the status quo, but as we go back to normal, I’m really hoping that isn’t forgotten because understanding that we have layers and bring our whole selves to work, it’s fundamental to our wellbeing.
So I would like to think that presenteeism is perhaps over. We don’t want me to have the nine to five rigid way of working a lot of companies, a lot of employers who said that flexible working wasn’t possible have no find themselves in a place where the are able to see their staff working from home.
And the work is still being done. So I hope that flexibility and trust in workers to be working [00:14:00] from home and still having the level of productivity and output. Has been seen, has been witnessed and evidence. And I hope that continues particularly for women., who have caring responsibilities, particularly for people who are for disabled people.
We’re flexible. And at home working has created a, an opportunity to engage in the workplace. That has perhaps once been exclusionary to them. So for stabled communities, for women, it can be transformative. If we manage to keep the lack of presenteeism, the flexibility of working from home, at least in some way, going beyond COVID-19.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:14:40] What we have seen though, with working from home is that women are still bearing the brunt of the childcare response, which I know is some of my staff, they are juggling work and looking after young children. Obviously, you’ve worked a lot around inequalities of women in your role as Director of Equate. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you think of the specific [00:15:00] challenges that women have faced around COVID and around lockdown?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:15:03] Well, there’s, there’s a list, unfortunately, and as I said, those who have experienced inequalities, those inequalities are amplified by COVID-19. So it’s no surprise that women have been at the sharpest end of the impact of COVID-19. So, yes, women are disproportionately more likely to be doing the homeschooling.
They’re disproportionately more likely to be doing the care work as a consequence of COVID-19. And in fact, there’s a recent paper, a recent article talking about the impact for women who are in academia. So we already know that women in academia are less likely to be published, are less likely to be participating in high-profile research.
The, the journal of comparative political studies found that they had an increase of 25% in submissions by men. And there was no increase in the nber of, and the proportion of women submitting research. Now, why is that? Is that because men are having more time to [00:16:00] do the research whilst women are continuing to take on the schooling with homeschooling, with care work, and therefore they don’t have the capacity to do the research as always.
So there’s women, this will be, uh, a continued inequality beyond COVID-19. When we see those publications, when we see those being promoted to professor, because of their publications, under the research excellence work, those who will be able to cite their work. So therefore get more funding for their next piece of research.
There’s likely to be. And even higher uptake by men and women forgotten and their work being less likely to be invested in. So this is a something that could go on beyond COVID-19, but we’ve also seen gender pay gap is likely to be increased as a consequence of women losing their jobs. And this is a double edged sword.
One is because women are more likely to be in those sectors where there is higher redundancy, so hospitality and retail, but it’s also the women being forced into [00:17:00] making a choice over their work or their care. So having to see I’m going to have to go part-time or I’m not going to be able to work because I’m having to take on caring responsibilities.
And actually the importance of intersectional analysis is vital. When we talking about the gender pay gap because black minority ethnic women are disproportionately more likely to be working in retail and working in hospitality. So there are even more likely to be maybe forgotten. So, those are just a few of the things.
Another example is we’ve seen an increase to 1 million unpaid caters across Scotland. So before COVID 19, it was around 750,000. Approximately we’ve seen a sharp increase to 1 million unpaid caters. That’s not a number we thought we were going to eat until 2030 and a disproportionate number of those are women.
So again, women who will be taking on caring responsibilities, unpaid, that’s a very bleak picture that [00:18:00] I painted, but it is a reality for women, right now
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:18:03] I mean, the unpaid carers has had some attention, but maybe not as much attention as you might thought, given those, those figures, is that your perception?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:18:12] Yes. Yeah. Without a shadow of a doubt. Now, there’s not enough people talking about that 1 million. There’s not enough people talking about what do we do as a consequence of that? So universal basic income would be transformative for people who are unpaid carers. The fact that we have in some ways, dismissed it already is really, really worrying.
It needs to come back onto the table. It needs to be a conversation and it needs to be action. There was a carers week, just a few weeks ago, and actually there was very little about it with, as the conversation around COVID-19 and unpaid care. Is critical that’s of course there’s going to be an increase of people, even temporarily as carers.
If those who have underlying health conditions who are elderly are more at risk of COVID-19, there’s going to be not [00:19:00] only more people who are unpaid carers, but those who are already on unpaid carers under even more strain as the little bit of respite had by engaging and interacting with other people has completely gone, because they can’t expose the person.
They’re caring for to risk. So, yes, without a doubt, we have not highlighted and appreciated the lights of unpaid caters as much as was desperately needed during COVID-19.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:19:28] Do you think there’s a wider issue here about actually how we value caring professions? Because actually it almost seems to mirror the sort of, well, no pay experienced by people in the care sector.
And the contrast, obviously with the health service is a broader issue here around care that we need to be looking at.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:19:44] Absolutely care. Unpaid care care sectors childcare should be an economic priority. I find it quite interesting and this isn’t to pit, , you know, one sector against another, as somebody who worked in science, technology [00:20:00] engineering, and the built environment inequality there it’s about leveling the playing field between different sectors.
So, we just heard the prime minister talking about an 11 billion pound investment in construction. However, imagine that level of investment in the care sector. So of course construction infrastructure investment in that is a boost to the economy, but actually there would be a higher boost to the economy if there was an investment in the care sector and an unpaid care because we create financial stability for people who are going to be paying for things in our economy are going to be spending money in our economy who have freedom and choice to be able to spend and participate in the economy.
So, I do find it interesting. Disheartening to have such an investment, but not that mirrored in a sector like care and in unpaid care that actually provides an even [00:21:00] larger boost to the economy. If it was given the importance and the value that it actually has for our society.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:21:07] And I guess also something that would be helped to be addressed by looking for a well-being lens as well.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:21:12] Absolutely. Yes. And I think if we have care, childcare, unpaid care as a core, they would be no way that we could talk about wellbeing without talking about those things. So, the shift to a well-being economy absolutely would have the highest impact for those at the sharpest end of inequality and policymaking.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:21:33] And are there any interventions you think government wherever at the UK level or Scottish level should be taking now to address some of the inequalities COVID has thrown a light on new thoughts about care, but just more, more generally, are there ever interventions you would like to see governments thinking about so
Talat Yaqoob: [00:21:49] Simple things, but some of the work that I do is around migrants, rights and migrants.
Again. Most likely to suffer inequalities. And at the moment, there is a [00:22:00] very small change that could save people’s lives. And that is to scrap the no recourse to public funds, visa status. What that means for those who don’t know is largely. For example, those migrants, who come to the UK are given a visa that says no recourse to public funds on it.
And what that means as whilst they are here as migrants, they do not have access. To the welfare State, they did not have access to any services that are publicly funded. And that includes things such as domestic abuse, support women’s aid centers that are publicly funded. So, by scrapping no recourse to public funds, you would prevent individuals from exposing themselves to risk by having to go back to work, because there is no financial security net that they can fall back on.
Those who are experiencing domestic abuse, women who are experiencing domestic abuse, having access to public services, to [00:23:00] support services that could potentially save their lives. So, a small, but hugely significant change would be completely scrapped, no recourse to public funds. There are things that can happen within immigration policy.
There are significant things that can happen within the welfare. So we’ve had an increase, the 80% Furlough scheme we’ve not had equivalent changes to carers allowance or unpaid care. So there, there are choices that can be made within our, our social security and our, our welfare system, which could transform lives under COVID 19 and actually beyond.
It’s not just for COVID-19, it’s a change that needs to be made and how we value people in society.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:23:44] Well, it was, it was sort of interesting for me, I’m involved in the homelessness charity , and again, it’s sort of taken a pandemic for us to be able to sort of take people off the street and into accommodation, provide support around them,
Talat Yaqoob: [00:23:56] Exactly
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:23:57] Just shows what can be done.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:23:59] So we [00:24:00] were able to shift our thinking. We were able to move those who are homeless into safe, warm homes. We were able to invest in workers who were likely to be made redundant. But this is not just a Covid-19 issue. It is highlighted what we are capable of. And now it’s time for us to continue doing it because we want to create a different kind of society where if something like COVID-19 was to happen again, people would not be in the high risk situations that they found themselves in.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:24:30] You’ve obviously been working in the area of the equalities and inequalities for, for a long time. Has it been anything that sort of surprised you in terms of how COVID has played out or in terms of the response to it?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:24:41] I think perhaps not surprised, but certainly warmed my heart a little bit is the community response.
So the social action that communities have taken themselves where. Sometimes there’s been a gap in policy. There’s been a gap in public bodies or the public sector response with third sector [00:25:00] response and the way in which communities have come together to look after one another. And whether that is your streets, WhatsApp group, to check that individuals are checking in on elderly.
Whether it is, uh, the grocery store that is giving out free hand sanitizers with their newspaper deliveries. Whether that is fundraisers that are happening for those who are at risk of destitution, the way in which society has responded has been wonderful. And as a consequence, we should be looking at that as inspiration of how we create policy.
How we create change within how we distribute power? Because I think what we’ve found is the local community is more than, more than capable of looking after one another, seeing what is needed and intervening. So let’s get them involved in how we intervene at a local authority and national level because they [00:26:00] have insights.
That we need, they have thinking that we need. And I think that is something that needs to be remembered and needs to be harnessed beyond COVID-19.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:26:11] So I think you’re showing that you are sometimes the glass half full, as well as the glass half empty teller.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:26:16] Maybe, actually, when I talk about communities, , I’m glass half full.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:26:20] I mean, that actually takes me to what was going to be my final question and in no way, wish to sort of underplay the, the really awful consequences of, of COVID. But it is also being seen as a possibility to create a fairer society. Do you feel that’s within reach? What would support that ambition for you?
Talat Yaqoob: [00:26:39] So we’ve had a lot of, , you will have hard to build back better build forward better, and there is definitely a recognition that something needs to change. My concern is that so far in terms of restrictions being lifted in terms of our economic response, and we talked about economic recovery, [00:27:00] a lot of it is very status quo.
So I think that there is an opportunity for us to learn from lived experience right now. And I hope that is harness. There is an opportunity, and I think the biggest thing for me will come from how we work. I can’t imagine that many employees who have the ability to work from home will be in a hurry to go back to a rush hour commute anytime soon.
So actually there’s an opportunity to change the labor market. And as a consequence, create better health in the work-life balance that we have. I think there’ll be some real conversations about the potential of a four-day working week. Because people have realized that perhaps they’re more productive when they just are at home.
You get rid of that one hour commute in the morning and in the evening. And actually that’s two extra hours where you’re working now, so you can have four day weeks. So I think the biggest opportunity is probably in labor market transformation because of [00:28:00] how we’ve shifted, how we work. The the second is there is a shift in public opinion around key workers.
So on a Thursday night, we’ve been at clapping and as a consequence there has been, and there’s a fair amount of polling on this. Now, a shift in public opinion around pay rise, pay increases across the public sector. So if that’s the case now is the time to do that because people are understanding and valuing our nurses, our social care workers, our cleaners, and our hospitals in a way that unfortunately, perhaps they didn’t before.
So that is an opportunity. That is an opportunity for us to make the most of and show that we value that by secure contracts. By pay rises by respecting the key worker care sector. And I think now is the time and public opinion is on our side. Empathy is on our side. Let’s do something about it.
Rebekah Widdowfield: [00:28:59] Well, that call [00:29:00] for action. Sounds a good note on which to end thank you for sharing your experience and expertise around inequalities and how they impact on COVID today. Thank you.
Talat Yaqoob: [00:29:10] Thanks so much for asking me to be part of it.