Covid-19 has exposed the reality of Britain: poverty, insecurity and inequalitySep 15, 2020
Only a fairer society can lay the foundations for economic recovery, and build resilience to future crises.
After the catastrophe of the past eight months, a new political consensus seems to be emerging. The government has to get a tighter grip of the country and the crisis we are facing. Taking back control now means that Boris Johnson must change his management style. Instead of remaining an aloof chairman of his government, he must become its hands-on chief executive.
Ministers need to discover misplaced competence – from the reopening of schools to securing a Brexit deal (or preparing for no deal), and from reigniting a beleaguered economy to supporting the tens of thousands of people who will lose their jobs when the furlough scheme ends. And Covid-19 will have to be kept in check through a judicious mix of personal hygiene measures, physical distancing, mask-wearing, testing, quarantine and targeted short-term lockdowns.
But none of these measures recognises the true scale of the social pathology underlying Britain’s national crisis. They do not constitute a strategy for national revival, or offer a long-term vision for our nation. And they do not deliver any prospect for hope and regeneration, let alone the promise of “levelling up” the country.
Science cannot guide the government in formulating this strategy. A plan for Britain’s future must be guided instead by our values and the lessons learned from the human consequences of this pandemic. It’s time for Johnson’s government to stop saying it is simply “following the science”. By this, I don’t mean that ministers should ignore the advice of scientists as they manage the continuing presence of coronavirus in our communities, but that we don’t elect scientists to lead our nation.
We elect politicians to offer and deliver a vision for our country and a practical plan for our collective future. As summer fades, it’s becoming clear that our government has no vision and no plan for the future of the nation it was elected to protect and strengthen.
The writer Elif Shafak, in her recently published essay “How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division”, recalls seeing signs in public parks during the pandemic asking: “When all this is over, how do you want the world to be different?” She points out that we are suffering from a widespread disillusionment about our bewildering predicament, and describes how people are feeling anxious and angry. She argues that alienation and exclusion are breeding mistrust, that communication between people and politicians is broken, and that despite the crisis we face we are nowhere near being able to answer a question about how we want the world to be.
How do we begin to answer that question? First, we must understand the true nature of the crisis that confronts us. Our nation suffers from a political disease of historic proportions. The bonds that once held communities together are fraying. The confidence we once felt that generations after our own would have greater opportunities has ebbed away. And the beliefs we once embraced about the inherent strength and resilience of our national institutions and welfare state have been exposed as mere illusions. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the reality of contemporary Britain: the country is defined by poverty, insecurity and inequality.
To solve this crisis, we must begin by hearing the stories and listening to the experiences of those who have borne the brunt of Covid-19, especially the families who have suffered grievous losses and those who fell ill on the front lines of the response. Illness and death have been concentrated among the elderly, those living with chronic disease, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and those who have been working in frontline public services, from health and social care to transport, food production and distribution.
The closure of schools has placed a particular burden on children and young people. And a shadow pandemic has harmed women and children, who have suffered rising levels of violence and domestic abuse at home.
A more equal society is a safer, kinder and more prosperous society. Specific policies to meet the urgent needs of these groups can lay the foundations for economic recovery and build resilience to future crises. We must demand parental support to improve prospects for child development and policies to advance adolescent physical and mental health.
We should have stronger assistance and legal protections for women and children at risk of domestic violence and abuse. And we need more interventionist disease prevention and health promotion campaigns across people’s lifetimes, prioritising cancer prevention, heart disease and severe lung disease – and recognising the role that poverty and insecurity play in determining ill health.
Working conditions must be improved, and frontline workers must receive a wage that respects and recognises the critical role they have played in protecting our communities from collapse. It was these frontline workers who did not have the luxury of staying at home. Thousands of women and men, working on zero-hours contracts or in dangerous factory conditions without sick pay, had no choice but to work in environments that put them at the highest risk of contracting infection.
At the heart of this vision would be a new settlement to achieve intergenerational and socioeconomic equality. The pandemic has exposed how brittle our society is at the extreme ends of the age spectrum. We have systematically neglected our older citizens by denying them the esteem and material needs they have earned from their lifetimes of work and care. We have hurt our children by outsourcing their futures to a hopelessly flawed mathematical algorithm. We have to take education as seriously as we do healthcare; and, currently, we do not.
We have spent decades underinvesting in education, leaving generations of children to struggle, with little hope and dwindling prospects. And the time for integrating adult and children’s social care within the NHS is long past.
This pandemic has dehumanised us all. The effects of Covid-19 have been described in terms of mortality statistics, rates of infection, epidemiological models and league tables. The biographies of those who lost their lives to this virus have been largely forgotten. But they can be recovered and brought into the political foreground by fashioning a new vision for our nation that puts their lives and sacrifices at its centre.
These priorities will not be achieved with mere changes in the style of government. They require an accurate diagnosis not of what went wrong in the response to the pandemic – that will come later – but of who has endured the greatest harm. We don’t need a public inquiry to tell us who has suffered the greatest burden of Covid-19.
There will of course be vigorous, even rancorous, political debates about policies to advance the welfare and wellbeing of our most vulnerable communities. But those debates should at least be forged in the service of a coherent, determined and optimistic plan for national rejuvenation. Covid-19 is not our destiny. It’s time to look beyond this appalling, cruel pandemic and towards a more optimistic future.