A crisis is always an opportunity for the right; our side has to start setting the terms of its own agenda, writes Kevin Potter
‘We’re all in it together’ is on the surface a strange rallying call for a right wing elitist government. But it is the rhetoric of nearly all governments in times of crisis. There are distinct political reasons for this that have nothing to do with a desire to strengthen social bonds and build a society that takes collective responsibility for all.
The principal message they aim to impart is that it is inappropriate to politicise what is happening. They paint events as simply an entirely external natural phenomenon which dictates their response. Whilst at the same time they seek to convince that we are all individually responsible for outcomes.
These arguments have a crude logic and, particularly in the case of disease, seeming salience, as no rational person would claim that Covid-19 itself is not a natural biological occurrence. However, this is a deliberately cynical simplistic picture.
The reality is that the response to crises is always a matter of political choice and of the economic and social reality of a society; which is itself a product of politics. Britain is a highly class divided and unequal society and Corona, like an earthquake opens fault lines, courses through those divisions.
We can already see the inequality in treatment between those with wealth and power and the rest of us. Prince Charles, Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Idris Elba and Nadine Dorries have all tested positive for Covid-19. The key word here is ‘tested’. For the general public testing is still not available, unless you are seriously ill in hospital.
We are left to self-diagnose; worse, testing is at present still not routine for NHS staff. How is it that Prince Charles was able to rush to Scotland and receive immediate testing through the NHS? The only answer is that he has wealth and power.
The matter is not only one of inequality reflected of health care depending on wealth and status, but highlights a public health disaster with a political context.
‘Test, test, test’ was the advice of the director general of the WHO. As Britain hit its two-and-half-thousandth confirmed case it had tested only 826 persons per million, compare this with South Korea which at the same point had tested 2000 people per million. As, again, the director general of the WHO stated ‘We cannot stop this pandemic if we do not know who is infected.’ Why then such a poor response from Britain? The answer is politics.
Despite knowing about the virus since late 2019 the Tory government chose to do nothing for weeks, test kits were not purchased at anything like the scale required and years of politically motivated underfunding of the NHS has left it scandalously under prepared, with no stock piles of test kits, an already overstretched workforce and no spare capacity.
As with viral test kits, lifesaving respirators are in chronically short supply (again in no small part a result of inaction and the political decision to erode the NHS over years). Shamefully the hallmark of raw party politics is stamped onto the delayed response to their provision.
Despite the fact that there are existing suppliers to the NHS, who have additional capacity, and who are already set up to produce respirators, the Tories issued an appeal (not a command, let alone effective measures such as requisitioning facilities) for business to bid to produce them.
The two main companies that have been commissioned, which is to say that will be profitably rewarded, are plant manufacturer JCB and white goods manufacturer Dyson. Is it a coincidence that both are major Tory donors?
But political context of Covid 19 extends far beyond the immediate medical effects of the virus. The politics of our society have determined the measures taken to protect the lives and incomes of the public as the country locks down. Firstly, the lockdown itself is so leaky a sieve would be proud. Most notably construction work has been declared ‘essential’, forcing thousands to continue working on building sites, using communal canteens, commuting on public transport or fuelling their cars at petrol stations.
Only a tiny fraction of construction work will be building new medical facilities, community resources, or facilities for the manufacture of medical equipment. Most will be constructing buildings for private interests. Hotels owned by multinational corporations, retail parks and commercial units, student halls and private houses.
None of which are essential except to the hedge funds, developers and private interests whose profits are tied to property. Again, is it a coincidence that many Tory MPs have shares in construction companies?
Then there is the unequal support for workers. Living in a society where the norm is austerity and neoliberal marketisation and privatisation, in which the state is reduced to a bare minimum and the social safety net reduced to threads (again the result of a political programme) the governments’ response may seem generous. And indeed this seems to have been a wide spread perception if Boris Johnson’s approval ratings are any indication.
However, in reality the response has been a litany of incompetence, delay and market first politics. The leaky lock down was brought in far too late as the government initially sought to protect the market above lives. Whilst the commitment to pay 80% of wages so that companies can furlough employees is welcome, it does not extend to all.
The self-employed were initially not included at all and the provision that has now been put in place leaves thousands without help (you are ineligible unless you can prove that you are self-employed by having filed a tax return). This leaves those more recently self-employed with only meagre universal credit to fall back on. Further, no funds will be available to any self-employed persons until June, a delay in which many will not cope.
Again the impact of inadequate provision for those in self-employment cannot be separated from the political context of our society. Years of neoliberal market politics have seen the labour market casualised and increasing numbers forced into self-employment and the gig economy. Already among the most exploited workers in Britain it is they who are now left to suffer the worst economic privations of Covid-19.
All indications suggest that the global economy is plunging into a depression, potentially of the scale of the Great Depression. The world that emerges in the wake of the pandemic will be determined by the balance of political forces and the narratives that win out. Our ruling class will do all they can to ensure a return to business as usual, the very landscape that has made the impact of Corona so much worse.
They will also work tirelessly to ensure that the economic hardships of the coming depression will be carried by ordinary people. If we are to avoid the very worst privations of capitalism, mass unemployment, war, starvation and predatory exploitation the left must expose the politics of Covid-19 and win the arguments, the consequences of failure could be dire.
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