Photo: Anna Shvets / Pexels Photo: Anna Shvets / Pexels

The drive to get people back to work is responsible for a rise in infections, not individual behaviour, argues Kevin Potter

A recent poll suggests that a substantial section of the British population believe it is the actions of individuals that are largely to blame for any new spikes in coronavirus, not the catastrophe that has been our government’s response. We shouldn’t of course place too much emphasis on polls, but it is nonetheless disheartening.

Such thinking is encouraged by the establishment and it is not surprising that it gains some traction. Indeed the kind of competitive individualism that underpins this kind of reaction to others is a tactical and ideological tool used by the capitalist class to weaken class solidarity. The tabloid press and other right wing media outlets have long drip-fed a narrative of society being beset by ‘stupid people’ etc.

It encourages working people to punch down (or perhaps we should better say sideways) by appealing to individual ego, to a self-aggrandising delusion of superiority and virtue.

But the reality is that in capitalist society individuals actually have little option but to behave in the ways they do, even during a pandemic.

The truth is that the majority of social proximity is driven by the demands of work. During the current crisis the Tory government has repeatedly prioritised the interests of employers over those of public health. 

The government has deliberately driven people back into offices, even where homeworking is possible, because they want people buying sandwiches at Pret a Manger etc. We are told from the top to go to pubs and restaurants – in fact financially incentivised to do so. We have been encouraged to shop as an act of civic duty.

Then there is the shambolic Tory ‘strategy’ and messaging, which is incoherent to say the least: 

  • Herd immunity then lockdown (and arguably back to herd immunity)
  • Daily briefings then no announcements or statistics at all
  • Parading scientific ‘advisers’ then blaming the scientific advice 
  • Social distancing replaced by ‘hands, face, space’

What are people supposed to think constitutes safe behaviour with this kind of confusing messaging from those who are supposed to be steering the national response? And that’s before we even consider the example set by the likes of Dominic Cummings.

Against this background, if you have been crammed into an office, on public transport, a site canteen…a person can hardly be blamed for concluding that if social interaction is deemed safe for work, and in shops, they might as well spend a couple of hours on the beach or in a pub garden.

Indeed notice how the things that are considered safe are all commercial activities: in ‘locked down’ Manchester you can meet whomever you want in a pub, but heaven forbid you see friends or family in the confines of your home. You can pile onto trains and buses to serve your employer but not to serve your children’s need for stimulus and exercise. 

The common sense of most people is far superior to the demands of capitalism and the palpably profit-motivated diktats of our government, which force us to behave in ways that people know are not safe. 

And that’s before we consider the failure of government to put in place the things needed to combat a pandemic they knew was coming. Months without PPE in hospitals, failure to procure test kits in a timely manner, failure to introduce any control measures until too late, financialisation of hospitals leading to reduced capacity, etc. 

No, we are in the mess we’re in because our government and economic system are corrupt and incompetent, not due to the behaviour of our population.

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