Cash rich. Graphic: Pixabay/Gerd Altmann Cash rich. Graphic: Pixabay/Gerd Altmann

The government is trying to deflect blame from its failings by blaming ordinary people for the shortages, argues Katherine Connelly

The government has been forced to retreat from its completely hands-off approach to the Coronavirus under widespread public outrage.  Today it hit back at the public.

At today’s government briefing George Eustice, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, told the public to be responsible, to stop panic buying and think of others.

It’s a message that has resonated because up and down the country people are going to the shops and finding the shelves empty, especially of essential items.  It’s easy to make the link between these empty shelves and people buying more than they need and to blame other individuals in the same community for causing the shortages.  It’s easy, but wrong. 

By individualising the crisis, the government is deflecting the blame that has been focussed on its role, and it is hindering us from asking vital questions about the distribution of resources in society.

The role of government failure

The government’s failings have caused this crisis. 

Why was there no planned distribution for those in self-isolation so that people did not feel they would have to bulk buy?  Why is it up to the individual supermarkets to decide how much people may purchase and at what price?  Why have prices not been fixed to ensure equality of access?

This was the government’s responsibility.  It has failed and it is now blaming individuals for its ineptitude. 

The government’s reluctance to act, their patchy, half-baked responses and above all their contempt for ordinary people have left people afraid that the state is not going to look after them – hardly an irrational fear given the evidence. 

And hardly an irrational fear in a country where government decisions have increased levels of hunger over the past ten years: where the introduction of Universal Credit has been linked to rising use of food banks and malnutrition. 

And hardly an irrational fear in a country where politicians have opportunistically used the threat of shortages to achieve their political objectives.  Remember the Conservatives telling the Scottish electorate that they would not be able to use the pound if they voted to leave the UK, remember the shortages of medicine that were predicted to try to stop people from voting to leave the EU?

The real hoarder

But this kind of rhetoric conceals the real hoarders in society. 

This crisis comes at a time when the gap between rich and poor has been dramatically widening.  The problems that are now being starkly revealed – of insecure, low paid work, austerity cuts, the privatisation of the health service – were part of a programme of redistribution of wealth that massively benefited the richest in society.

Now that we face this enormous challenge, in fact most ordinary people have been organising to help each other in the absence of government support.  But where are the richest people in society in this crisis?

Not helping out everyone else, not sharing their enormous resources. 

Quite the opposite in fact.  Perhaps the most brazen has been Richard Branson.  A billionaire with a private island who not only told his staff they would be unpaid for eight weeks but has asked for a government bailout for his company.

But it goes far beyond individuals.  The NHS is so starved of resources that to meet the challenge of the crisis it faces having to pay an estimated 2.4 million pounds a day to the private sector for hospital beds. 

Companies that have profited for years out of healthcare are showing no altruism in this moment when healthcare is so badly needed. 

This is the real problem hoarding in society.  The government should be stepping in to redistribute the wealth, to ensure that everyone, not just the wealthy, is protected – and that, I think, would stop people panicking. 

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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