The UK has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world. Excess deaths are estimated to number more than 65,000. And these aren’t just statistics. They are lives cut tragically short. They are loved ones snatched from their friends and family before their time.
Who is to blame for this calamity? Is it the party whose obsession with privatisation made our health service more vulnerable to a pandemic, as has been known for more than half a decade? The party that gutted NHS funding and caused a humanitarian crisis in it before coronavirus even hit? Is it the Prime Minister who skipped crucial Cobra meetings, ignored advice from his chief scientific advisory committee and fatally delayed lockdown by a week, a move that would have halved the fatalities?
Or maybe it is the government that sent elderly people back to care homes without testing, leading to care home excess deaths totalling 1 in 7 of their population, while carers weren’t provided with testing or adequate personal protective equipment, and whose zero-hour contracts forced them to choose between potentially spreading the virus at work, or self-isolating in extreme poverty.
This is the same class of people that outsourced the contract for the track and trace app to private companies, only for their mismanagement to cause chaos, leaving us without this vital instrument to fight the disease; and who pushed for lockdown to be eased even while thousands of people were contracting the virus every week and deaths were in excess of the combined total of our European neighbours.
Is this where we should focus attention for our coronavirus catastrophe? Not according to Conservative MP Craig Whittaker, who on Friday blamed Muslims and BAME communities for “not taking [coronavirus] seriously enough.” Asked if Muslims were guilty of lockdown breaches, Whittaker replied “Of course.” BAME communities, he continued, were responsible for “the vast majority” of lockdown violations. When challenged, the Prime Minister refused to disavow the comments, merely stating that “it’s up to the whole country to get this right.” Whittaker subsequently doubled-down, claiming we need these “sensible conversations.”
Needless to say, there is no evidence to back up these claims; nor, of course, are the Tories blaming people who attended mass gatherings on VE Day, at beaches, or at football celebrations. And they wilfully forget about Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Durham. The reason for this is obvious. The Tories are attempting to divide and rule, using blatant racism to scapegoat an already marginalised group for failures that they are themselves responsible for.
Boris Johnson has already attempted to shift the blame, claiming that carers were responsible for the horrors his government inflicted on our care homes. That didn’t stick and the pushback was considerable. But the Tories may think they’ll have more luck with this effort. As other commentators have observed, Whittaker’s remarks feed into pre-existing racist prejudices, which imagines Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities as unclean and ignorant. We are portrayed as an alien presence, infecting an otherwise healthy society.
The labour movement must challenge this with utmost ferocity. Not only is this owed to BAME communities — who already feel like the Labour Party is abandoning them — but we also can’t let the Tories off the hook.
We have to be absolutely clear: BAME communities have been at the frontline fighting this virus, disproportionately represented in the NHS and in key worker roles. Let us not forget the names of the first doctors to die from coronavirus: Dr Amged El-Hawrani, Dr Adil El-Tayar, and Dr Habib Zaidi — and nor can we forget that BAME communities are disproportionately dying because systemic racism locks them into poverty, bad jobs and overcrowded housing.
The responsibility for Britain’s coronavirus catastrophe lies squarely with the Conservative Party and their litany of failures. They are responsible for thousands of totally unnecessary deaths. We can never forgive them for this.
But it goes deeper than that. The government’s incompetence is not mere incompetence. Instead, it’s borne from a complacent class that has ruled our country with impunity for too long. They have hollowed out the state, rendering it incapable of properly responding to the virus.
Their neoliberal project said private good, public bad; it said profit before people; and it said that collective action for the common good was utopian, if not worse. We’re living — and our class is disproportionately dying — with the consequences of that.
This is also why the likes of the USA, Brazil and other hard-right, neoliberal governments have struggled so abysmally, while countries less infected with this ideological disease have fared better.
Unlike South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam and others, the Conservatives have been unwilling to use more far-reaching measures to eliminate the virus while protecting livelihoods, choosing instead to merely “flatten the curve.” The ongoing new cases, deaths and economic disruption are the fatal consequences of this.
Outbreaks in Leicester and now the North West have forced local lockdowns, but bars, pubs and restaurants are permitted to stay open. Public health is still not taking priority: the Tories want us to go out and spend and not to notice that in July Britain had more coronavirus deaths than the combined total of France, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Austria, Greece, and Denmark.
They want to blame black and brown people for their catastrophe, no matter the rise in hate crimes it may provoke. They want to shift responsibility, to protect their class and its dominance. Divide and rule is their tried and tested tactic. They blame us when they fail: We know it from Aberfan, Hillsborough, Orgreave, and Grenfell.
This has one purpose: to distract us from the simple truth that Britain is governed by a class that treats working people with absolute contempt — black, brown and white alike. They don’t want us to build bonds of solidarity that could challenge their rigged system. And so when they blame Muslims and BAME communities for coronavirus — or when they whip-up fears about trans people, or target migrants and refugees — our response must be that of the old trade union saying: United we stand, divided we fall.