What happens when precarity and key working meet head-on in a pandemic, Andrew Emerson reports
At the start of this crisis, like many, I was worried about how I was going to survive when my agency-dependent, zero-hours contracted job would end with limited prospects of alternative employment and no sick pay.
By a combination of luck and circumstances, I now find myself as a key worker but still in a minimum wage “don’t-work-don’t-get-paid” situation. This puts the health of myself and my family in profound risk.
I work in a hub school and we care for the kids of frontline workers. Some of the children are the children of shop workers or cleaners or are otherwise vulnerable, but most are the children of NHS staff. NHS staff are, of course, the most vulnerable, working as they do without adequate protection among the Covid-19 infected.
They pass the virus onto their colleagues and other patients and go home and pass it on to their kids, who pass it on to us. It’s like a ticking timebomb. At work we wait and wonder who is going to be next.
Me and my colleagues discuss how we absolutely should be tested for the virus. Not only to keep us safe and give us piece of mind, but also to organise the work most effectively.
Of course, we aren’t saying that we should be prioritised over NHS staff. We are not in competition with other key workers, but we recognise our vulnerability and are keen to have at least a modicum of protection.
Most of the staff who come in have volunteered to work and have been given the option of staying away if they or family members are in an at-risk group.
For me as agency staff, I don’t really have much of a choice, but to be honest, even if I had a permanent contract, I’d still volunteer to come in. I’d rather do something constructive or useful rather than sit at home reading online conspiracy theories and apologists for neglect of the vulnerable. Although self-isolating is pro-social, I still feel compelled to do a bit more.
In work, we had our own little tribute to NHS staff which was placed on the school’s social media account. The term” heroes” to describe NHS staff has become almost meaningless. It’s an empty, hollow marketing slogan with little in the way of substance.
Substance would translate into tests, protective equipment, universal basic income and basic job protections, but six weeks or so into this crisis, none of this has been secured.
Yet the word “hero” - stripped of its cynical sloganeering and hashtags – is the only word that adequately describes those who wilfully endanger themselves while sports stars, celebrities and politicians get tested at the drop of a hat.
The government has left us all high and dry. No tests, no protective equipment and little or no guidance and leadership. Hand sanitiser is scarce and we no longer have enough for the children to use.
We’re obsessive about getting them to wash their hands and to keep two metres apart, but how do you stop five year-olds from touching each other, and when a kid needs a hug, well what can we do? It’s an impossible situation.
We as staff have almost stopped not discussing our concerns in front of the children. What’s the point? We discuss the latest developments, advice, conspiracy theories, who we know is sick, who we know is vulnerable and, in the absence of clarity of both advice and action from official government sources, we try and interpret the situation. It creates an overwhelming atmosphere of confusion and contradiction
The children ask us questions. They’re concerned about friends, family members and themselves and because the advice is contradictory, we end up having discussions with them rather than providing definitive answers. They, like the adults around them, have grown cynical about anything that comes from government.
On a daily basis we watch Newsround to get the latest updates on the crisis, and the kids boo Boris Johnson every time he appears on screen. It’s useful in allowing us to emphasise the key messages about cleanliness and social distancing.
For a few hours our little world operates as some kind of strange little oasis of tranquillity in the weird, parallel universe that is our lives, where everything is the same, only vastly different. Travelling to and from work provides a jolt of reality.
The eerie emptiness of rush hours, the patient queues outside shops, the disproportionate number of homeless people out and about. Some of these homeless are familiar faces from round my way and I’m scared for how many of them are going to survive this.
It’s the waiting that kills. We’re all waiting to get sick, or for our friends and families to get sick. My hay fever symptoms cause panic with every sneeze, cough and splutter, not least to myself, wondering if I’ve contracted the virus and I’ll have to go into quarantine.
If someone could design a neat badge which says, “I’ve got hay fever, so don’t panic, but stay the regulation two metres distance rather than invade my personal space to scream at me to stay indoors.”
Aggression invites an aggressive reaction and that does nobody any good. I’m well aware of and I’m taking all the right precautions, but in our environment it’s impossible to do everything.
My plan is to work until either I or one of my family (there’s three key workers in our house) get symptoms and we have to go into lockdown. We’ve just had to send home one of our kids, the child of a NHS worker, who showed symptoms and that gave us all a reality check about how exposed we are while most people are isolating.
But the irony is, if I self-isolate, I get nothing in terms of pay, but if I get sick I’m entitled to the Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) of £94 a week.
The sicker irony is that I’m better off exposing my kith and kin to danger by continuing to work so that when I do get sick, I’ll get sick pay. So I’ll carry on washing my hands and giving the kids a sly hug. And wait.
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