These really are unprecedented times. Less than two weeks ago we were being told to carry on as normal in order to ensure the virus spread amongst 60% of the population – now, in one of the biggest U-turns in British political history, we’ve been placed in a long overdue lockdown. We sit on the brink of economic collapse as concerns over the national debt take a back seat in many people’s minds as they lose sleep about personal debt, rent payments and the status of their current employment. Coronavirus – or COVID-19 – is bringing the world economic system to its knees and revealing its frailties left, right and centre. Here are five ways that the Coronavirus is exposing the ruling class and the economic system that sustains them.
- There’s No Such Thing as Society
We’ve seen the incredible pictures of empty supermarkets aisles, videos of confrontations over toilet rolls, and the heart-breaking footage of NHS workers breaking into tears as they are unable to get supplies after a gruelling shift. Many have jumped to their keyboards to denounce the actions of those who are stockpiling and have branded such people as selfish. In a lot of respects that is of course true, but this runs deeper than the selfish versus the selfless. This “lack of care for others” attitude is deeply rooted in British society and is the bedrock of the agenda laid down by Margaret Thatcher: there’s no such thing as society.
That infamous line of Thatcher’s epitomises not only her premiership but that of all of her successors. Despite much debate, the Thatcherite agenda of individuals over society and corporations over community remains unbroken since its inception over thirty years ago. Today we live in rat-race Britain, where community spirit is found few and far between. More than half of Britain don’t know their neighbours‘ names, trade union membership has plummeted and sentiments such as poverty being down to household ‘laziness/lack of willpower’ are on the rise.
People are programmed to care for themselves and their family before anyone else, and conditioned to believe that any success in life is down to their own efforts rather than a collective endeavour. We’re told that the disabled are cheating the system, immigrants are a drain our vital services and the children of single mothers are ‘ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate’. You can’t divide society to fight amongst itself for thirty years and then ask it to come together at the drop of a hat. Community can’t be turned on and off like a light switch. The panic buying of essential products is the legacy of Thatcherism – your own needs come before that of your community. If there is no such thing as society, as Thatcher so famously celebrated, where is the requirement to care for others?
What is also significant in this regard is the current government’s advice regarding the virus, which as of Monday got somewhat stronger, in terms of social distancing, self-isolating and taking all of the necessary precautions. Many had been shocked to see pubs remain full to the brim before last week’s forced closures. Social gatherings continued over the weekend forcing Boris Johnson, without actually using the word, to enact a partial lockdown of British society. It is laughable that the very same government demanding for people to listen to the expert advice were only a few years ago pushing the line ‘Britain has had enough of experts.’ The British ruling class is simply reaping what it has for so long sewn – sadly the virus will affect us more than it will them.
- Outsourcing, Outsourcing, Outsourcing
This current crisis is also laying bare the complete inability for the state to do any sort of state planning or putting together of a timely, coordinated response to ensure that much-needed resources get to our vital services. We are now seeing the complete inability of the British state to build literally anything. In a time where our NHS workers, be that frontline nurses and doctors or dispensing assistants in pharmacies, are working all hours of the day to try and combat the virus in dangerous circumstances, the state has to ask DIY stores to donate protective clothing because we simply cannot produce the amount that is needed. Better than that, Conservative MPs are begging for businesses to call their support line if they can produce ventilators, a much-needed machine which will provide a lifeline for those hospitalised with the virus, because we simply do not have the infrastructure to reach the demand.
The issue of not being able to produce the items we need is as a direct result of years of privatising the state leaving us with, in the time of a global crisis, a Government with an inability to supply products and resources. Successive governments have had private firms build our hospitals (with horrific consequences in the case of Carilion), allowed nearly every last asset the government once owned to be put into private hands (Royal Mail, British Telecom, Utilities) and been compliant in much of our production sector being shipped abroad. Almost every arm of the government is outsourced to private contractors including our schools, our health service and even our prisons. The British government hasn’t built anything in years, and now we need Coronavirus testing centres, ventilators and a coordinated response to a pandemic, the infrastructure isn’t there. Even now it is nearly impossible to get tested for the Coronavirus in the UK apart from if you are hospitalised, despite the World Health Organisation’s advice for countries to ‘test, test, test’ people who display symptoms.
To add to that we have seen, since the Conservatives took power in 2010, a significant rolling back of public services which are now vital in the fight against this virus. We are asking the NHS to try and cope with a pandemic after the NHS posted its highest ever number of vacant posts for nurses in 2019 and has faced continuous cuts to the number of beds available for patients. This is in conjunction with the 20% cuts to pharmacies, who are now on the high street front line in the face of the Coronavirus. This all goes into the melting pot of Conservative Government failure along with the likes of the social health care crisis we face, all issues exacerbated due to this current coronavirus crisis.
- The Gig Economy & Precarious Work
How silly does the Home Secretary Priti Patel look now deeming those who earn under £25,000 a year ‘low-skilled’ workers? The coronavirus is highlighting that not only do we undervalue so many of our workers in day-to-day life, but during a pandemic so many are willing to put their health at risk to keep this country going. Our supermarket workers, carers, paramedics, farm workers and nurses are now on the frontline in terms of keeping Britain going and trying to maintain the health of the nation – all of which are roles with starting salaries of under £25,000 a year. These heroes now make up the backbone of the ‘key workers’ who are bravely going into work but are still paid peanuts. Interestingly, when you next take a look at the government’s list of key workers just have a check where it mentions any billionaires being key workers. Or a mention about supermarket CEOs? No – it’s as if it’s the lowest paid members of various organisations and businesses that are actually the important ones? Maybe the super-rich weren’t the ones who created all this wealth they’ve absorbed after all?
On top of the plight of the ‘key workers’, are those on zero-hour contracts, in precarious work, and the self-employed. We’ve seen how quickly the likes of Wetherspoon’s CEO Tim Martin, a Brexit and Conservative campaign donor, have dropped their workers like a stone leaving them without pay and with a completely insecure future. The government has put in place measures to try and combat the loss in wages for many during this crisis, but it doesn’t go anywhere near close enough to answering the nation’s concerns. At the time of writing there has been an announcement regarding cover for self-employed people but this doesn’t kick in until June, leaving many with the only option of applying for statutory sick pay, with the UK’s being one of lowest in the whole of Europe. There are plans in place for the government to cover 80% of wages lost by workers who are kept on by their employer (that being the important point) but this means next to nothing for those on zero-hour contracts or those that regularly work more hours than they are contracted. For too long we have been expecting people to be in insecure, low-paid work and now that problem is coming to the fore.
- Self-Isolating in a Housing Crisis
We then come to our housing crisis, a plight that everyone knows about, but the government doesn’t want to fix. The coronavirus is uncovering the extent of the issue that is housing in 21st Century Britain. The first clear point is that self-isolating is impossible when you haven’t got a home to go to. We have 4,266 rough sleepers in the UK (a 141% increase since 2010) and 57,890 homeless households (which includes those sofa serving, living in temporary accommodation and overcrowded accommodation). With rough sleeping being the tip of a much bigger homelessness iceberg, it is clear having people sofa surfing, living in B & B’s, and in overcrowded homelessness shelters is not ideal when there is a global pandemic requiring self-isolation. Many homelessness charities have criticised the government’s response to the virus with regards to Britain’s homeless population, with the £3.2 million emergency support package not covering questions such as how are homeless people able to get to the vital services they need (soup kitchens, day centres etc) without public transport.
Added into this problem is that of Houses of Multiple Occupation. These are homes which are let to sharing occupants (more than 3) who are not a family unit. These properties usually work like private student accommodation with one bathroom, one kitchen and locks on individual bedroom doors. While it is already laughable that the government’s advice is for people not to share bathrooms or bedrooms with those exhibiting Coronavirus symptoms, it is even more laughable for those living in HMOs. According to government figures, there were 497,000 HMOs in England and Wales in 2018. These will be houses with people working in multiple sectors meaning it is nearly impossible to contain the virus amongst that household.
Hand-in-hand with the growth of HMOs is that of those who are forced to live with elderly parents due to rising rents and housing prices. The average age of first time buyers is now 33, with only 15% of young people at home saying they are there due to personal preference. This, along with the difficulty of disabled people being able to live away from family due to savage disability benefit cuts, shows that the government’s original plan to allow sick people to get the disease to build an immunity was crazy from the start. Due to the housing crisis homes up and down Britain are a mix of old and young, disabled and physically able. Coronavirus shows that we simply do not have enough adequate homes for workers, families, the disabled, young people or elderly people. House prices are soaring, and not enough houses are being built. This is despite there being 216,empty homes in Britain (many being second homes of the rich and famous) and golf courses in England using twice as much land as housing.
- We’re all Socialists in a Crisis
And guess what happens when there is a crisis: there actually is a magic money tree! Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has been praised in the right-wing and the liberal press alike for his £330 billion loans to businesses during what has been hailed as an unprecedented intervention into the British economy. There has been money promised to help the homeless, increase Universal Credit amounts and reduce waiting times to receive benefits. When this is all over, we need to remember – they’ve had the ability to do this the whole time, but this virus has forced them into a corner. With every call for the government to intervene and help the vulnerable over these last few years the government has barked back that these ideas are simply ‘unaffordable.’ This crisis is unravelling the myths that the market is always right, and that what is good for the rich and private companies is good for the rest of us. The government has a role to keep us safe, allow us to grow and prosper, and protect the vulnerable. If we can do that in times of crisis, then we can do that in times of ‘normality.’ This is why we have started Worcestershire Transformed to join the army of alternative media outlets that are asking questions of power and lighting the path to a better future. We have some tough weeks and months ahead of us, but we must come out of it ready to fight for our families, our neighbours, our communities and our fellow workers.
For information about looking after your mental health in this time of lockdown see this article by fellow contributor Dan Knight.