National unity kills under coronavirus

The UK government and the media are actively promoting a narrative of national unity against an external enemy, making parallels with wartime. Ian Allinson argues that when measures to protect the public have been too little, too late, and extracted under pressure, every clap for Boris cost lives by easing that pressure. The article also introduces a recording of rs21 members discussing the real parallels and differences with coronavirus and class struggle during World War Two.

A cartoon of Boris Johnson with a hard hat and a cigar.
Cartoon by Colin Walker

The government lost control of the narrative when it was forced to u-turn over its policy of pursuing ‘herd immunity’ by allowing coronavirus to spread through the majority of the population, which would have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Now there is a concerted attempt to rebuild government authority which includes the Queen’s speech and the focus on Johnson’s illness. Attempts to get people to ‘clap for Boris’ were largely unsuccessful, but the national unity argument is not going away.

A government with blood on its hands

It is worth reminding ourselves of some of the ways that Johnson and the Tories contributed to the crisis:

  • Johnson was part of governments that cut the NHS and social care and held down pay (laughing and joking when they voted down pay rises for health workers). This contributed to the masses of vacancies that put health and social care at breaking point before coronavirus hit. Staff shortages were exacerbated by the government’s anti-migrant rhetoric and policies.
  • Johnson was in the cabinet in October 2016 when Exercise Cygnus simulated an influenza epidemic. Rather than acting on the alarming results to ensure Britain was prepared, the government buried the findings.
  • When coronavirus started Johnson pushed the idea that we should all catch it to develop herd immunity, opposing calls for any action beyond washing our hands and even boasting about shaking hands with people who were infected.
  • The government allowed major public gatherings to continue and kept schools open long after it was clear the virus was loose in the UK, accelerating the spread. It took pressure from teaching unions, staff and parents before schools stopped ‘business as usual’.
  • The Tories took weeks to put in place any support for workers so people could afford to follow the isolation guidelines – and this is still inadequate for many people.
  • Millions are hungry, with 1.5 million going whole days without food.
  • They are still failing to shut down many non-essential workplaces where people are unable to carry out social distancing. Workplace closures are being driven by workers’ collective action and public pressure not state enforcement.
  • The government failed to provide adequate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for health workers and other essential workers – and this is still a problem for many.
  • The policy for care homes is focused on managing end of life rather than preventing infection. Many still have heavy reliance on agency staff who move between homes and have to work without proper PPE, spreading infection to vulnerable people.
  • The Tories failed to requisition manufacturing capacity to produce ventilators, PPE, and test kits, leaving Matt Hancock begging companies to help.
  • The government failed (and is still failing) to follow WHO advice on testing and tracing and was late to order the necessary kits.
  • The standard of PPE for front line workers in England has been reduced below the WHO recommendation without any scientific basis.

The crisis is far from over – and we will need pressure on government and employers from the public and workers’ collective action to save lives by preventing safeguards being reduced in the interests of business. And even when the crisis is over, millions will be jobless and in debt – a bogus national unity will disarm us, allowing the government to make us pay for the big business bailouts, maintain extraordinary levels of repression and ignore the need for action commensurate with the ongoing climate crisis.

The pandemic DOES discriminate

The other reason the calls for national unity are so offensive, particularly coming from royalty or millionaire politicians, is the gross inequality of the pandemic. We are constantly told that ‘the virus does not discriminate’. The virus itself may not, but the pandemic does, because it is about an interaction between the virus and a society riddled with inequality.

Many people globally lack access to healthcare due to poverty and the absence of universal provision. Many lack access to running water, living in poverty, slums or on the streets. Many are forced to choose between isolating and eating because of job insecurity, inadequate sick pay and state benefits.

The pandemic discriminates against those in manual occupations who can’t work from home, and against those seen as disposable by their employers, who keep them in workplaces that should be closed or fail to provide safe working conditions. It discriminates against those in prison and detention centres, cramped into close contact. It discriminates against those who fear detention, deportation or medical bills, who are less likely to seek prompt medical attention. It discriminates against those in overcrowded housing who have no space to isolate or exercise. It discriminates against those who are already medically vulnerable, often with poor health due to pollution, occupational diseases, poverty, poor housing etc.

Women are more likely to be in all the groups most at risk of infection, though men are more likely to die once infected. People of colour are disproportionately affected. Working-class people are less likely to demand the care they need. People who rely on carers, are older or who have certain disabilities are at higher risk – and are more likely to be denied care when it is short supply.

Parallels and differences with World War Two

The right-wing narrative of national unity is wrong in almost every respect. Myths about World War Two have gained currency as the events recede into the past. Class struggle was alive and well during the war – many of the rich and powerful were more afraid of disruption to business or revolution than of fascism – that is one reason why Churchill needed Labour support to prosecute the war. Working-class people had to fight over everything from access to air raid shelters, to housing, over pay, equal pay and to keep the police and wardens out of mass shelters.

Because the narrative about national unity was as wrong about wartime as it is now, exploring the parallels and differences can illuminate our struggles today. How can workers take effective action when they want better services not disrupted services? How are different occupations and industries affected during a crisis? How can workers take action when Labour and union leaders back national unity and the state is even more repressive than usual? How do essential workers take advantage of their new power without their representatives being incorporated into management decision making?

rs21 recently held an online meeting to discuss all these questions and more:


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