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Gracia Lam

Realising a New Normal

What comes after Covid-19? It may be many things, but we can be certain it will be entirely different to what came before. The far-reaching ramifications of this crisis provide an opportunity to reconfigure society, in much the same way that occurred following the Second World War. We are living in the ‘New Normal’, we are so often told, however, ‘normal’, is what got us here in the first place.

Normal has atomised society as we know it, severing social ties and the normalities of daily life. The conventional understanding of how to operate the economy, in even the most entrenched ‘establishment’ publications, has been turned upside down. The fundamental arrangement between capital and labour has been reconfigured, as undoubtedly, this crisis is unlike any other in recent memory. This crisis has no ready-made comparison. Therefore, the questions this crisis has proposed require an entirely new set of answers, fresh and ready to meet the demands necessary. Effective planning, real funding of our public services, and financial support for those most vulnerable must become the ‘new normal’. A return to ‘business as usual’ would underline the failure of our political class to acknowledge the scale of this crisis, to fund the institutions that keep us safe, and to ensure that we are not as ill-prepared in the future.

Competing narratives will be rife, some arguing more disingenuously than others, that this is a crossroads for political transformation – not just for the political parties themselves, but society as a whole. Indeed, Covid-19 is an opportunity to put front and centre the challenges that need answers, such as poverty, regional inequality, and climate change. Nevertheless, as Naomi Klein famously argued in Shock Doctrine, moments of political and social upheaval can be exploited for equally destructive ends. This is the crux of the issue, as many on the Conservative backbenchers will be seeking to reconnect the experience of this crisis into significant political capital. Significant state investment, they will argue, needs to be dialled back, but it may not be politically permissible to cut already wafer-thin public services. Instead, if there is a drive towards ‘austerity 2.0’, it would not be surprising to see the burden fall on those who bore the brunt of this crisis. It is those who are invisibilised: the migrant workers in the care, health, and delivery industries who may be targeted. Indeed, it would sadly be the logical conclusion of nearly a decade of the ‘Hostile Environment’, immigration detention centres if we fail to protect these workers.

Whilst, the Government’s u-turn on the NHS surcharge for health workers is welcome, it is still not enough. The charge is both immoral and counterproductive and should be removed for all migrant workers – as the extortionate fee traps migrants into an unnecessary cycle of debt that many will struggle to pay. The Government’s shift on the issue has demonstrated again that Covid-19 is far from the ‘great leveller’ it is purported to be, and instead has crystallised existing class tensions. The low paid-low skilled paradigm should be buried to become a relic of a forgotten national past. It is both insulting and condescending to workers - who have in many cases lost their lives during this crisis - that because they are unfairly paid, it becomes part of their moral character, forever labelled, low-skilled. We must ensure that all migrant workers are exempt from this charge and that messages of inclusivity are at the very forefront of our drive for a progressive, anti-racist immigration policy.

As much of the rhetoric surrounding recent immigration bill illustrated, the desire to return to an idealised national past – British Jobs for British People - is not only a fantasy but deeply worrying in a time of mass uncertainty. Britain, we should not forget, still has the uncertain formalities of Brexit to deal with, whilst, the economic fallout from Covid-19 will only sharpen in the months and years ahead. The country’s future is uncertain, which provides both room for political opportunism, as well as real practical change – and it is our role to ensure the latter.

It is easy to be despondent in this time of crisis. However, it is not enough to offer a vision of hope but to practically envision the political transformation we desire, far removed from the hyper-nationalistic, “we can do it alone” mantra of Conservatism. Individual acts of goodwill, buying food for an elderly neighbour, mutual aid groups and “clap for carers” are the cement on which we build our new political settlement. Significant local and regional investment would build upon the acts of social solidarity this crisis has fostered, as the ‘caring’ capacity of individuals has occupied the space heavily underfunded local services have been unable to fill. Stories of immense kindness are at odds with a political system which punishes those who offer their ‘care work’ by paying them a miserable wage. These acts of social solidarity are the building blocks of our ‘new normal’, however, we must fight to ensure they are not forgotten. 

  • Gregory Billam tweets at @polemicgreg