We are inside a story with vastly different, equally plausible endings. I hope desperately that our emergency services are able to contain COVID-19 without mutations or further complications. We also have to recognise that this may not be the case.
We have much time to think, much to think about, and with the amount of public discourse taking place on social media in a period of self-isolation, much time to engage with each others’ thinking. We all should do our part to contribute to an informed public discussion, one that can provide comfort, useful advice and support, and an understanding of what this pandemic means for our way of life.
Obviously, decisions on the optimal medical response should be left to medical professionals. Yet we must recognise that any response strategy raises political as well as scientific questions. Science determines what measures could theoretically work, but it is politics which determines what measures are deemed acceptable and how they are implemented.
British politics has been found sorely wanting. This government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into beginning to implement World Health Organisation advice on population testing, contact tracing and effective quarantine measures. On Monday the WHO made an extraordinary attack on attempts to “fight the fire blindfolded.”
The prime minister’s strategy was developed by a behavioural insights team whose main experience so far seems to be overseeing small increases in council tax compliance, not coordinating major national emergencies. Johnson’s media cheerleaders have been sent out to attack any discussion of government behaviour, seeming to see it as their job to hold the public, not politicians, to account.
Amid the chaos, Labour has called for rational measures to assist people’s ability to contain the virus. These include proper sick pay so people do not have to choose between their and others’ health and their income, rent and mortgage holidays for those whose earnings are hit, and ensuring those on universal credit are able to self-isolate without being stripped of support.
We also called for requisitioning of private hospital beds we need and any other resources required to contain this unprecedented crisis. This is the minimum; we need a full package of support to ensure access to care, real living wages for people to be about to be laid off and raises for minimum wage staff performing essential work, as well as rent and utilities bills deferred or suspended.
It is wrong that it is being left to the political opposition to pile on pressure for such basic demands to be met. It speaks to something more serious than government incompetence. It is a deep-rooted belief in the commanding heights of our economy and society that such simple measures are beyond the capacity of the system to deliver.
This is not, of course, the attitude being taken to throwing trillions to the mercies of the stock market, or providing corporate welfare to major companies while they are forcing their workers onto unpaid leave. Yesterday’s decision to spend £330 billion on loans to business while announcing hardly any measures for workers told a story. Bailouts for the top are in the crisis management toolbox, emergency support for working people is not.
Perhaps the reason for this is simple; a terror on part of the political establishment represented by the Conservative Party of the conclusions people may draw. If we can fund public health departments, provide sick pay and flexible working arrangements, and force massive corporations to behave with a modicum of social responsibility during an emergency, why can we not do it in ‘normal’ times? It was, after all, wartime mobilisation that laid the ground for the foundations of a welfare state and the NHS.
Boris Johnson has made much of his plans to unleash Britain’s potential after Brexit. And in Dominic Cummings he has an advisor who is blunt and open about the Conservatives’ failure to care, or even appear to care, about the worst off. They even publicly recognise that our politics is woefully set up for focusing on things that matter, like major national emergencies, and that we are blighted by deep regional and social inequalities.
This makes their approach even more indefensible. They have on some level assessed the problems and decided to respond with piecemeal adjustments in a bid to evade taking the action that is needed. Why? Because serious, comprehensive change would be unpalatable for their billionaire backers.
What the pandemic has outlined is; the problem is not just poor government, but every level of our political and economic system. Claims over the weekend about President Trump’s attempt to buy exclusive rights to the vaccine from a German pharmaceutical firm are, if accurate, just an example of a wider refusal to acknowledge that social and economic wellbeing depends on other nations recovering as well.
Meanwhile we are suffering from weak productivity, extreme working poverty, and catastrophic underinvestment – both directly in public health and in the kind of services that lay the ground for healthy and functioning communities to flourish. The system that connects us refuses to acknowledge that we are connected, and instead has incentivised the worst and most selfish aspects of human behaviour at both individual and corporate level.
This will not do at the best of times, but it certainly will not do during a public health emergency. It is clearer than ever; our elites have not just failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining, they have sold it off during a storm.
This is not just a system that has failed to resolve crisis; it creates and exacerbates crisis. The control of political priorities by a set of people who have spent decades stripping the decency out of our politics has left us with multiple areas of vulnerability, from the threat of runaway climate change to the collapse of public trust in politics to the grim legacy of foreign wars. Our immense capacity for innovation has been over-focused on the pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of long-term instability.
The fact that the pain of the coronavirus crisis looks set to be exacerbated by the pain of a stock market collapse shows us the common thread in responses from Downing Street to Wall Street – the defence of a system that refuses to work for the common good. And the people are not invisible or nameless; they can be seen fleeing into disaster bunkers.
What comforts me is our capacity to come together in such times. My approach to life and politics was formed in a mining community in the 1980s. During bitter winters with our families on the breadline, our communities harassed and smeared by the authorities we were supposed to rely on for protection, we stood together to stand up for our rights. And we also worked to ensure that food, medicine, and moral support remained available to all in our community.
The British labour movement has declined but I see that same spirit in the community response to Grenfell Tower or to flooding in rural towns, where people have organised with or without support. Labour should lend its hand to such efforts.
But of course that is not enough. We all desperately want to return to normality, but our political system is failing miserably to deal with the most severe pandemic of a generation and has put lives at risk. Left unattended, it will fail to deal with worse in the future.
From coronavirus to the climate to our broken economy, we cannot hope to weather the challenges of this century without calling time on a collapsing system and the few who perpetuate it. We deserve – and desperately need – a way of life based not around greed and short-termism, but around human potential and flourishing.