The government and media are pointing the finger of blame at the public for the Covid-19 outbreak and making appeals to ‘national unity’ to undermine opposition to the government’s response. Charlie Jackson argues that we need to build solidarity instead of resenting those around us.
We are witnessing a profound, immense, and utterly disorienting ideological offensive. ‘Blame the ungrateful, ignorant mob’ is the line spouted from every government outlet and every loyal media platform. BBC News publish daily stories of the stupidity and greed of the masses: panic-buying, hoarding, congregating in parks, pubs (before they were finally closed) and markets. News outlets have broadcast tearful pleas from NHS workers imploring people to stop ‘panic-buying’, and pundits have grilled ministers on whether they will bring in the Army to put an end to the irresponsible behaviour of the general public.
There are several absolutely necessary responses to this generalised frenzy of contempt. We need to recognise that we are, all of us, being invited to indulge in a national ritualistic shaming of the ‘irresponsible’ masses, that this plays on our worst assumptions about those around us, and that, fundamentally, all of these assumptions are, for the most part, completely untrue. Every aspect of this ideological offensive is geared towards blaming individuals or the general public for systemic failures in government strategy, and the result is to completely excuse the murderous, psychopathic negligence of this government.
Roll the clock back two weeks, and the Chief Scientific Advisor was telling the nation that the main priority for the pandemic response was to develop ‘herd immunity’, and that it simply had to be accepted that at some point or another roughly 60% of the British population would contract coronavirus. Leave aside that references to ‘herd immunity’ are not in themselves a public health measure, but simply a description of a phenomenon which occurs regardless of any intervention, every person who had paid attention to the horrors unfolding before our eyes in Italy knew that precious time was being wasted and lives were being squandered. Our NHS comrades were well aware how unprepared the health service, already over 100,000 posts understaffed, was for the coming storm, and how grossly under capacity our Intensive Care Units were. We were assured, nevertheless, that the government response was ‘led by the science’. Those of us who were not epidemiologists or virologists were calmly reprimanded to mind our own business and trust the experts.
But, as has already been pointed out, there’s nothing so political as a pandemic. Public health crises, as we are now well aware, touch on every aspect of our lives, and public health responses are determined by calculations which go well beyond the sage deliberations of medical experts. Only last week government spokespeople were still telling us openly that the medical response and quarantine measures had to be carefully balanced against economic impact. This crisis was explicitly political from the start, and it was stated plainly that avoidable deaths were simply a price we had to pay to maintain economic growth. Our lives are a price worth paying for the profits of the rich.
‘Panic-buying’ has quickly become one of the primary taboos of our national consciousness. The underlying assumption is that those around us are greedy and solipsistic. Spectacular photographs of empty supermarket shelves and stories of fights breaking out over household commodities have provided the backdrop to government ministers and broadcasters insisting that people should ‘only take what they need.’ Rumours of spivs and profiteers hoarding items to sell them on at increased prices have fuelled the general hostility. Last week Dawn, a nurse from Yorkshire, shared a video of herself in tears, after completing a shift to find her local supermarket bare of essentials. Stephen Powis, NHS England Medical Director stated the next day that ‘we should all be ashamed’ of ‘unacceptable’ panic buying, which was depriving NHS workers of the essentials that they need.
But the truth is that the main problem is not the spectre of ‘panic buying’. Supermarkets do not operate with large reserves of stock, and the ordering of stock is calculated algorithmically for ‘just-in-time’ delivery. In general, the business models of most supermarkets mean that it does not make sense to pay extra rent to have warehouses of stock going spare, and this means that even very slight changes (about a £6-£10 increase) in our shopping habits can leave supermarkets completely unable to adapt and restock in time to avoid local shortages. Whilst there may be some people who are buying more than they need, the vast majority are simply very rationally and responsibly stocking up for anticipated periods of self-isolation by buying an extra tin of soup here and an extra bag of pasta there. This in itself is enough to produce the empty shelves that make headline news.
With increasing intensity we are seeing the emergence of a tendency to counter-pose the irresponsible and selfish behaviour of the general public with the heroism of healthcare workers. Over the last week, since before greater restrictions were introduced on Monday there has also been a rising moral campaign against those breaching ‘social distancing’ measures. Last weekend it was reported that ‘thousands’ were defying social distancing measures on trips to seaside towns. Pictures of outdoor markets crammed with shoppers circulated around social media. The government, which had insisted that the Cheltenham festival should go ahead, despite protestations, only two weeks ago, now lamented the reckless disobedience of people out in the sunshine.
Leave aside the fact that the millions of people whose incomes will be affected have no choice but to breach social distancing, as they choose between self-isolation or putting food on the table. We cannot forget the fact that it was not this government which took the initiative to impose social distancing, but workers, parents, and institutions like the Football Association which forced the government’s hand. It is not surprising, given the confused and chaotic messaging from the government, that many people have taken a while to get the memo.
But more fundamentally, we need to understand that, in order to try to manage this crisis, the government is scrambling to develop the illusion of ‘national unity’. One way it is doing this is by trying to co-opt the justified respect shown for healthcare workers, evidenced in Thursday night’s incredible applause, into a respect for the authority of NHS bosses and government officials. Social responsibility and respect for the bravery of frontline workers is being conflated with a general injunction to ‘follow the rules’ of the government response plan. This is insidious for several reasons: it is an attempt to scapegoat individual behaviour for the shortcomings of the governmental response, it pits the general public against NHS workers, and it shuts down criticism of the clear inadequacy of the state response to the pandemic.
The government know that the NHS is hugely popular, even more so in a pandemic, where the necessity of socialised healthcare is plain to see. For years now the privatisation agenda of the NHS has employed convenient scapegoats. The NHS is ‘under strain’ so the story goes, because of abuse by people using it when they don’t need to, or because of ‘health tourism’. These lines have provided cover for the sell-off of NHS services and have been manifested in useless populist policies such as sending texts to patients with how much they have ‘cost’ the NHS with their treatment, and charging migrants to use the NHS.
This scapegoating has received new impetus in recent days. Alongside being constantly told that we are ‘all in this together’ we are warned that each and every one of us has a duty to ‘protect the NHS’ by staying at home, and this message goes hand in hand with the shaming of individuals who are accused of flouting social distancing.
But the undeniable truth is that we are not ‘all in this together’, over a decade of austerity and private contracting by both Tory and Labour governments has decimated our healthcare capacity. Whilst we face the next weeks and months with an acute shortage of ventilators, the government have proposed to ‘rent’ facilities from the private sector at a cost of £2.4 million a day rather than requisitioning them. This represents a massive injection of cash to private healthcare firms who have already spent years bleeding the NHS dry, profiting off of its gradual privatisation. That’s money that could be spent on vaccine development, ventilator production, testing, or countless other measures to address the pandemic. Whilst workers suffer from mass lay-offs and loss of income the government has bailed out the airlines to the tune of over £7 billion. What we are witnessing is the most flagrant agenda of callous and contemptuous class war in well over a decade. Those who will die, gasping for air in cramped and unsafe hospitals, are not the likes of Boris Johnson and his friends, but us.
Government spokespeople are endlessly repeating references to a ‘wartime mobilisation’. Boris Johnson made a great show of clapping along with the rest of us on Thursday and is clearly looking to develop his ‘Churchillian’ statesmanship as a leader with a firm hand on the rudder as he steers the country through a ‘national’ crisis. At the same time, the conflation of social responsibility and the ‘national effort’ is being used as a pretext for more and more draconian powers. The new ‘Coronavirus Bill’ which takes effect on Monday gives police the power to detain those suspected of being infected, and grants massively increased powers to immigration officials for detention and deportation.
The point here is not that a lockdown is not necessary, or that we should simply see measures as nothing but a pretext for greater state repression. We have to recognise that the same government which has consistently placed profits before public health is now implementing measures in a completely chaotic manner and in the most repressive way possible. In response we need to make a clear argument for a lockdown that actually works. Whilst construction workers and other ‘non-essential’ employees are still forced to pile into overcrowded public transport to perform jobs where they have no hope of maintaining social distancing, we need to argue for a complete closure of the non-essential workplaces with no loss of pay. We need to argue for rent suspensions so that we can self-isolate without fear of spiralling debt. And we need to continue to push for far better than the completely inadequate wage retention schemes that have been announced, especially since in most cases these simply amount to handouts for bosses who it is assumed will act in good faith to pass the benefit on to their workers. In other words, we need to push for a ‘proletarian lockdown’.
But realising and winning a proletarian lockdown also depends on building solidarity and apportioning blame correctly. We have to resist at all costs the building resentment against those around us. Whilst bosses continue to force their workers to sweat away in unsafe conditions for the sake of their overheads and the government spends billions on golden handshakes instead of healthcare capacity we have to say clearly: It is not your neighbours who are forcing doctors to risk their lives without protective equipment, but the government. Unless we get this right the state will find justification to intensify its repression behind the illusion of a national ‘war-effort’. The explosion of solidarity groups up and down the country demonstrates that we are not selfish or amoral. Whilst the government continues to condemn millions by asset stripping the healthcare service and backing landlords and bosses, we must remember that we are all united by their contempt for us. Other people are not the problem.