Global inequalities

The University of Manchester is advancing our understanding of the world in which we live, addressing inequalities to improve lives.

There are pronounced inequalities across the world, within individual countries, and in our own city of Manchester. While progress has been made on some aspects of inequality, it’s still the case that food, healthcare, infrastructure and resources are plentiful in some areas, yet scarce in others. Far too many households struggle with low income and poor job prospects.

Across the world, men and women’s opportunities, experiences, their potential and their quality of life are shaped by unequal treatment, prejudice and discrimination due to their personal characteristics or family background.

As we have done for almost two centuries, The University of Manchester is leading the way in addressing all aspects of inequality, from poverty to social justice, from living conditions to equality in the workplace. Bringing together some of the best academic minds in applied medicine, business, law, social sciences and the arts, we’re meeting these challenges head on, creating and sharing knowledge to understand our world and directly change it for the better.

Global inequalities: Research breakthroughs

COVID-19: Laying inequalities bare

The experience of COVID-19, and the lockdown of society that it has brought with it, has put a sharp focus on inequality.

The pandemic has not in itself created inequalities, but rather it has provided the conditions in which existing and underlying inequalities have thrived. The social, economic and health impact of COVID-19, has been most acutely felt by those sectors of our society most exposed to inequality.

Academics at The University of Manchester are investigating how we can learn from the challenges of COVID-19, and build a more sustainable and equitable post-pandemic world.


Lecture transcript

A handful of studies have now clearly documented that there are marked ethnic inequalities in COVID-19 related deaths, both in the UK, and elsewhere.

For example, in the UK, a local authority with twice the average number of ethnic minority people has a 25 percent higher death rate. And while there may be some variation in the size of the risk across specific ethnic minority groups, the risk is higher for each of them including White minority people.

No matter how shocking these inequalities are, they are not a surprise. Rather, they reflect ethnic inequalities in health that have been documented for decades.

For example, it is estimated that Black Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people have between six and nine fewer years than White British people of disability life expectancy.

So, how do we understand these ethnic inequalities in COVID-19 related mortality?

Four sets of explanation have been offered. The first three of which are closely interrelated.

First, ethnic minority people are more likely to be exposed to the virus. This is because they are more likely to both live in urban areas, where spread of the virus is more likely, and to be employed in sectors that increase their risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, such as transport and delivery, security, cleaning, health and social care work.

So consequently, ethnic minority people are more likely to be infected with the virus.

Second, once infected with the virus, ethnic minority people are more likely to be vulnerable to complications. This is because of underlying and long-standing social and economic inequalities that are faced by ethnic minority people, and which have been documented to increase risk of ill health and mortality for everyone.

Third, ethnic minority people are more likely to have underlying health conditions that increase risk of COVID-19 complications and mortality, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.

But it's important to recognise that these health conditions are patterned by the social and economic inequalities faced by ethnic minority people. They are part of the nexus of inequality faced by ethnic minority people that I've just summarised.

The fourth set of explanations resort to common sense understandings of ethnicity as reflecting biological, genetic, or cultural differences. This is a line of thinking that risks taking us back to a time of scientific racism, but one that is clearly illustrated by recent investigations into the role of vitamin D deficiency and its genetic underpinnings. A possibility that remains under consideration by researchers, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

In fact, when considering such an agenda, we should ask ourselves the very simple

question - What could possibly be the genetical, cultural similarities, between an ethnic minority family living in Tower Hamlets, and another living in Detroit, Michigan? Both of whom face an increased risk of COVID-19 related complications of mortality.

More likely than having shared genetic and cultural risks is that they both live in disinvested neighbourhoods with high levels of pollution and concentrated poverty, with insecure and underpaid employment and in overcrowded conditions with substandard levels of housing.

Those are the similarities that policy and research efforts should be paying attention to.

Indeed, behind the range of risk factors experienced by ethnic minority people is a key consideration, is typically absent from investigations into ethnic inequalities in health.

The inequalities are faced by ethnic minority people are driven by entrenched, structural and institutional racism and racial discrimination, which operate across the different dimensions of people's lives and accumulate, over time, leading to deepening inequalities across a person's life course.

And this points to the importance of considering the greater harms done to ethnic minority people as a result of government responses to the coronavirus pandemic because of their greater risk to be in precarious, economic, educational and social positions.

What does all this mean? In the short term, we should not, we cannot progress in our response to the coronavirus pandemic without paying close attention to modifying policies, prevent them aggravating ethnic inequalities. This is crucial.

In the medium term, the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic points to the need to establish a wide independent inquiry into ethnic inequalities in health, and one that moves to focus on recommendations to address the fundamental causes of these long-standing and profound inequalities.

Institutes, Centres and networks

Research on global inequalities spans across all three of our Faculties at The University of Manchester, drawing on technical expertise from the Faculty of Science and Engineering in initiatives such as FutureDAMS, insights on health and social care from the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, and in-depth analysis of societies environments and cultures from the Faculty of Humanities.

Learn more about our dedicated Institutes, Centres and Networks which foster world leading interdisciplinary research into making our city, our region, our nation, and our world a fairer and more equal place to live.

Explore our Institutes, Centres and networks

Global challenges, Manchester solutions

Inclusive growth

Global challenge

Economic growth is pursued by every nation around the globe, but the benefits of increasing prosperity are unevenly distributed. This imbalance leads to social and economic inequalities.

Manchester solution

The Inclusive Growth Analysis Unit is an independent analytic resource to help make poverty reduction central to processes of economic growth and devolution in Greater Manchester, and to provide research, analysis and insight on inclusive growth in other UK cities.

Everyday peace indicators

Global challenge

When peace-building projects report success at a national level, on-the-ground research may tell different stories of human rights abuses, militarised governments and inter-group conflict. Local communities – best placed to identify changes in their own circumstances – are often overlooked.

Manchester solution

The Humanitarian Conflict and Response Institute (HCRI) has asked community members in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Sudan to identify their own measures of peace. Researchers take these ‘everyday peace indicators’ and test them within their wider community, repeating the exercise to measure change over time. The indicators chosen – such as business owners painting their storefronts – help reveal community priorities and therefore their confidence in peace.

Chronic poverty

Global challenge

Every single day, 19,000 children die of easily preventable causes. Traditional development aid projects are not sufficient to tackle the scale of the problem.

Manchester solution

Research at the Global Development Institute has shown direct anti-poverty transfers to be a practical, politically sustainable and financially feasible means to address extreme and chronic poverty in low- and middleincome countries. Our findings have shaped development policy, influenced national governments and informed practice in several countries, including Uganda and Bangladesh.

Sustainable Development Goals

Global challenge

The challenges of poverty, hunger, health, climate change, education, sustainability and inequality are being faced in every nation across the world.

Manchester solution

University of Manchester research addresses the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Whether it’s addressing microplastics in rivers, food insecurity or building climate-resilient cities, our research is focused on developing a sustainable future.

Business and human rights

Global challenge

Businesses are increasingly seen as having a direct responsibility to respect human rights in their activities and operations, regardless of the context in which they operate.

Manchester solution

The Business and Human Rights Network defines the challenges of business to respect human rights, engages key actors, and informs the academic, social and political debate, helping to shape future policy and corporate practice. Key themes being explored by the network include investment, modern-day slavery and gender equality in global value chains.

Age-friendly cities

Global challenge

By 2030, 60% of the global population will live in cities, with at least 25% of city dwellers aged 60 or over. The needs of this age group will become increasingly significant in social and public policy.

Manchester solution

Our researchers trained a group of 18 older residents, aged between 58 and 74, to help us with our research. These co-researchers then conducted 68 interviews across South Manchester with older people who were experiencing social exclusion, isolation, poverty or health problems. Interviews focused on ways of improving quality of life for older people in urban communities and were designed to be particularly sensitive to marginalised community voices.