Remaking Society After Coronavirus
COVID19 hurts the working-class most, so why are we being told it affects us all equally?
COVID19 has blurred national divisions, squashed class differences, and signalled a return to sensible, human-centric politics... or at least that is what we are being encouraged to believe.
Boris Johnson’s recent admission to hospital highlights the unforgiving nature of the pandemic facing us all, affecting both the political class and the forgotten poor. However, it would be naïve to forget those who are most affected by society's grinding to a halt. The burden after all, in this moment of national emergency, falls on those who make the country run, not those who run it.
Who is it who continues to work? Who is afforded space to freely exercise? And who can most effectively self-isolate? The answer lies in their existing position in society.
Jobs long considered 'unskilled' and inefficient are suddenly being highlighted as the frontline workers in the fight against the virus. Whilst this should be welcomed, we must ensure that this shift becomes social ‘common sense’.
Stories of the class dimension to the pandemic are rippling around the globe, exposing long-held neglect towards public health workers, supermarket shelf stackers, waste refuse collectors and the emergency services. Much to the surprise of those who normally navigate the streets of inner-city London, (financial investors, business CEOs and hedge-fund managers), they do not in fact offer social value – especially during a pandemic.
The ‘new front-line workers’ are now the social lynchpin of society providing support for the most elderly and traversing the country supplying daily essentials. Workers who have long lived on the periphery of society have quickly demonstrated both their immense social influence on our lived experience, but also their prior invisibility.
Deliveroo workers, Amazon – and all those in the gig economy – have borne the brunt and enormity of this crisis. Falling public demand, safety fears and a lack of company support all explain this turn. Stories of insufficient protection have become a daily occurrence. The most startling being a recent report in The Guardian stating that TDL, a blood courier service, were not being given sufficient protection in transporting crucial COVID blood samples - which puts the workers themselves at unnecessary risk.
It is only this week that the World Economic Forum reported that gig workers were the hardest hit by the Coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, an industry which is marked by high degrees of social interaction, low levels of trade union representation, and an attitude of "if you fall, you fall alone", is fertile ground for COVID19.
The UK Government’s call for self-isolation and evolving attitudes towards ‘essential work’ have showcased this dimension starkly. Self-isolation – despite the Government’s promise to cover 80 per cent of employee wages – means entirely different things whether you are living in Surrey or you are living in Hackney.
We need to view effective social distancing not simply as a personal moral decision, undertaken by those who 'simply care' more, but as a societal indicator. Overcrowding in social housing in England has this year reached a 24-year high. According to the English Housing Survey, this means at least one million people are living in houses which are overcrowded. For these people, social distancing becomes an impossibility. Of course, this is not an issue if you live in a cosy, four-bedroom house with ready-to-go social distancing space and numerous bathroom facilities.
Calls to ban all ‘outside’ exercise, including parks, therefore, exacerbates the already existing class dimension of social distancing - namely, who does, and who does not own enough space to successfully do so. In a kind of catch-22, workers are both most at risk from contracting the virus through their jobs or being put on a meagre SSP allowance. As such, the question, remains, who can work from home and who cannot.
There will be a drive following this crisis by some on the Conservative backbenchers for a new round of austerity measures. Politically this cannot be considered an option.
By ignoring the huge human cost austerity laid on the social fabric of society, ripping the rug from underneath our already fragile ground, austerity cannot be placed on those who fought hardest against the virus. Instead, they must be in line for higher pay, better conditions, more staff, and better funding of the organisations they keep afloat.
The NHS' lack of capacity - despite the heroic efforts of its staff - can be said to be an indirect culmination of a decade of chronic underfunding and lack of resources. The pandemic has shown that jobs which are often the lowest paid are the most socially necessary. COVID19 is as much a realisation of the 'caring classes' significance, as it should be the remaking of society with them at the very centre.
- Gregory Billam tweets at @polemicgreg