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Credit, Sergio Santos

Coronavirus: The Social Crisis Behind The Public Health Crisis

Coronavirus is the biggest public health crisis in a generation, but it is also highlighting the crisis in our working culture, our social care system and the NHS. It is a reminder that we are indeed 'all in it together' - the virus doesn’t care how rich or important you are; to COVID-19 we are all human.

It is a reminder of how interconnected we are with people living on the other side of the world, so much so that their well-being is important to our well-being. It is a reminder that society does not survive based on the height of the ceiling, but the depth of the floor. Poor healthcare systems, and deficiencies in employment rights and community infrastructure are a problem for all of us.
 
This week the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced measures that mean the NHS will finally get a boost in funding, and that - at least for the moment -statutory pay will be paid from day one while those in the gig economy will be able to claim Universal Credit without physical visits to the Job Centre. But people are rightfully asking why is this only being done now? How are people supposed to live on £94.25 a week, or even less on Universal Credit and Employment Support Allowance?
 
For years workers’ rights have been eroded, especially in low-paid work including the food and drink industry and retail. Currently, Wilko’s, the high street retailer, is in a dispute with staff members and GMB union as the company are trying to cut sick pay. Agency staff are emailing their employers to ask if they’ll get paid if their workplaces are shut down to only receive vague responses. This type of insecurity extends beyond just those on zero-hour contracts; millions more are living paycheque to paycheque. A race-to-the-bottom on workers’ rights and pay has left us vulnerable. Coronavirus should force a rethink of our approach to employment rights, and not just in the short term.
 
The embarrassing scenes of people fighting over toilet paper and hoarding hand gel show just how the ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude is converting into selfish shopping behaviours. What is the sense of hoarding lots of hand wash when it means that others will be walking around with dirty hands? Unfortunately, there is no rationality to this panic buying, and it is in part brought on because of a lack of communication and direction from the government.
 
And yet, the best of humanity is also emerging. Open local Facebook pages and the Nextdoor app and you will see people offering to bring people in isolation supplies and people organising to ensure that no one in their neighbourhood suffers in silence. 
 
As the crisis persists we will need much more of this community spirit. With the absence of a functioning national effort, communities will need to step in to supply food and medicine to those self-isolating, to feed children who are no longer able to get a meal at school; to organise childcare as parents in emergency services go to work; to call and shout through window panes to lonely old-aged pensioners to check they are ok; and, to support those who temporally lose their jobs and are unable to get sufficient support from a broken and underfunded welfare system. 
 
For those watching the financial markets, there may be an inclination to think of this pandemic as a test of capitalism, but it is much wider than that - it is a test of society in an individualised capitalist system. We will either remember the coronavirus as bringing out the best of humanity or the worst.

By Dr Faiza Shaheen, Director of CLASS.

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