Covid-19 is a medical crisis, but also a social one. The impact of the pandemic on top of decades of austerity and public service cuts is driving millions to despair. But we’re also seeing grassroots initiatives defending communities, and local unions and campaigners starting to resist.
Sue works on a coronavirus helpline for a council in the north of England. In a typical working day last week she took eleven calls. Five of them were from people who didn’t have enough to eat – she referred them to foodbanks, of which there are now dozens across her city. Another call came from a woman working for Tesco on a zero-hours contract. Someone at her workplace had tested positive for the virus, so her manager had sent her home. She had no income, and because she’d been told to stop working by her boss, not track and trace, didn’t qualify for a self isolation grant.
One of the callers was silent. Sue told me, ‘I just kept saying, I know you’re there. I can’t hear you. See if there’s anything wrong with your phone. Please, please ring back.’ She told me, ‘some people know they need help but just can’t bring themselves to say it.’ People are ashamed that they can’t cope, can’t provide for their kids. Someone may phone up at half-past three on a Friday because the kids are coming home from school and they have no food for them over the weekend and no money – by that late in the week it’s very hard to organise anything for them. ‘That sense of shame really, really eats at people,’ Sue says. ‘It’s easier to deal with the people who are angry. I tell them that I’d be angry too, but it’s not me they should be angry at. It’s harder to deal with the people who are isolated. You ask if there’s anybody who can help them out and their voices get really quiet and they say no, there’s nobody.’ Several callers have told her that they want to die.
For decades now, we’ve seen cut after cut in social provision. Forty years ago, at least in some cities, you could get a council flat – now people have to turn to private landlords. If you had no money you could get an emergency payment from the Social Security. Now you have to wait around five weeks for your first Universal Credit payment – if you need money before then you can get an advance, but it has to be paid back. And you can get only one, so if a crisis happens before repayments are complete you’ve nowhere to go.
Liz, who volunteers five days a week for a food bank in South Wales, told me about how the benefits regime affected one of the people who came to them. A young woman had had a severe stroke, and her husband had given up work to look after her. But before she could get any money, she was told she had to attend a face-to-face interview –on the scheduled day, she was back in intensive care. They have had nothing to live on for two months.
Across South Wales people are seeing their working hours cut or losing their jobs entirely. Many of the 5000 jobs British Gas is cutting nationwide are being lost here; councils are also laying people off, with 1 in 5 jobs being lost in Rhondda Council. Increasing unemployment affects the food bank – local people are generous, but simply can’t afford to make so many donations. Stock levels in the food bank are going down, and Liz tells me, ‘I just can’t see any end to it’.
Yet, in this dire situation, people continue to take responsibility, innovate and support their communities. Once a week, Liz and her husband drive to a local supermarket and bring back surplus food for their village church – everything is given away, no questions asked. Other people do the same on other nights of the week. Nothing gets wasted – ‘if there’s too much bread, there’s donkeys on the mountain, and someone gives it to them!’ At the food bank, Liz tells me, ‘we’re all working together really well. We know what needs to be done. We don’t need someone to be in charge.’
Sue, in the north of England, also tells me about how people worked together when the pandemic broke out. Local foodbanks collaborated to create a single point of access to their service with one phone line. Volunteers came forward to deliver thousands of food parcels every day. Now, as the government encourages people back to work, fewer people have the time to volunteer.
You might think that, if a vaccine becomes available in the spring, the worst will be over and we’ll start getting back to normal. But that’s when some problems will really start, housing lawyer Dave Renton explains. Between May and September, a ban on evictions was in place. It ended on 20 September, but the flood of evictions Dave and others feared hasn’t come about – so far. Cases are being heard, at a much slower rate than normal, in socially distanced courts. No doubt some landlords are ignoring the legal procedure, harassing tenants into leaving, not doing repairs or forcing them to go. But what seems to be happening more often is that evictions are on hold till the spring. By then, the numbers will be huge. Back in July, housing charity Shelter estimated that 227,000 private tenants could be affected – add in council tenants, and the total is around half a million.
Early in the pandemic – when we clapped for the NHS, millions stepped forward to volunteer and it was easier to believe that we were all in this together – many people said that we can’t go back to the pre-covid world when this over. That feeling we can build a better society on the other side of the pandemic is something we have to recover. The good news is that local grassroots struggles around issues thrown up by covid – as well as top-down national networks with MPs and union leaders – are showing how that can happen.
Around 1000 students at the University of Bristol, for example, have signed up to join a rent strike and are withholding over £1 million. Over 200 Manchester Uni students are doing the same. Students point out that they were charged thousands in tuition fees only to be told to isolate with little support – some were even unable to get food. As one of the organisers of the Manchester rent strike put it, ‘If I’d known it would be like this I wouldn’t have come, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way’. The students have linked up with local trade unionists from Manchester Trades Council and had two meetings with them and members of the community.
Tenants are also organising around the effects of covid. London Renters Union has almost doubled in membership and launched a Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign to which over 4,000 signed up. They have had some successes, including direct resistence of evictions – Dana from Wandsworth explained that ‘My landlord tried to claim that I was a lodger so they could evict me. With support from the union, I stood up to the landlord and got them to back down’. James from Camden used the template letter from the union and his landlord agreed he wouldn’t have to pay rent from April to June. A recent campaign against housing association Clarion has seen repair works begin that tenants had been waiting for for years. The union is expanding, with a local group recently established, for example, in the south London borough of Wandsworth, who have taken part in the London-wide day of action in August, including protests outside courts. Members started organising in Tower Hamlets at the beginning of the first lockdown, and this group has almost reached the size of a full branch. London Renters Union are currently recruiting an organiser to help support new branches like this.
In Scotland, Another Edinburgh is Possible has brought together community groups, trade unionists – especially from the local council – health workers and disability campaigners. Around fifty people are involved and they are planning socially distanced street protests, including outside Edinburgh City Council’s Finance Committee at the end of this month. They are setting up a social media presence, and have inspired activists in Glasgow to establish a similar group. Edinburgh Black Lives Matter activists have also been highlighting the particular impact of the pandemic on BAME people and refugees.
These are the kind of initiatives we need to see nationwide in the months to come. The huge number of local Black Lives Matter protests in the summer shows that there are still thousands of activists in Britain willing to take action for social change. As the Tory response to the pandemic leads to increased unemployment, homelessness, mental health issues and food poverty – people actually without enough to eat in one of the world’s richest countries – a network of grassroots campaign groups can force them into yet more U-turns. We said in the spring that we won’t go back after covid to the world we knew before it – we can make that vision a reality.