The coronavirus has highlighted the flaws in our decaying government system so things shouldn’t go back to normal following this universal shakeup.
Since the lockdown began, “when this is all over” has seemed to go hand-in-hand with “when everything goes back to normal”. Of course, there is no feeling more universal in these times than craving a sense of normality. We all look back at the freedoms we took for granted, the daily routines we complained about, the mundane inconveniences we would give anything to have back, and the comfort of knowing everything was fine. Perhaps there will be a moment when we rejoice in the ability to return to our normal lives, seeing our colleagues, friends, and families, and enjoying the frivolous novelties that we never dreamed would be taken away, like going to the pub or spending more than an hour outside. But once we’ve reclaimed all these things that we treasure, it’s absolutely imperative that some things don’t go back to normal.
Covid-19 has highlighted the serious inequalities that underpin our society. It has exposed the frailty of a decaying system, one that is so easily broken and unfit for purpose. Many of the problems the virus has created were already existing ailments from a government that gave us an underfunded healthcare system, exploitative corporate power, and an inadequate welfare system. Once the virus and the threat it poses to our way of life disappears, so too must these capitalist structures which have left our most underpaid and undervalued workers to do the dirty work, plunging workers and independent businesses into financial uncertainty, whilst corporations are bailed out. Covid-19 has reminded us of the reality that employees are dispensable and secondary to profit, and that when the fragility of neoliberalism rears its ugly head, it is the rich and powerful who face the least consequences.
Something about all this chaos feels chillingly familiar. Following the economic crisis in 2007, the government allowed for working and lower-middle-class people to pay the price through austerity measures. Now, 12 years later, the legacy of austerity – particularly an NHS stripped to the bone, low wages, and widespread job insecurity – is making the working-class suffer. These essential workers, whether NHS staff on the frontlines or supermarket workers keeping our country fed, have proven themselves to be the backbone of the nation during this crisis, but at what cost? The truth is, the very people who we expect to risk their own health and lives in order to keep the rest of us alive, are being exploited by a government that was happy to let their wages stagnate and call their labour “unskilled”. Nurses are reporting that they are not being provided with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment), not being tested regularly despite being exposed to Covid-19 patients, and some medical staff have died from the virus. Now is the time to ask ourselves, would we be willing to risk our lives for £24,000 a year? Would we want to be the ones working at the supermarket checkouts, being exposed to hundreds of people each day, for multibillion-pound corporations that pay their staff minimum wage?
We are constantly being told by politicians and media figures that the virus doesn’t discriminate, that it is the great equaliser and doesn’t care who or how rich we are. This is a myth that is propagated by the elite, similar to the “we’re all in this together” politics from the austerity years, to convince us that there are no winners and losers here. There are losers. Celebrities in the US who experienced mild symptoms had no issue getting tested, whilst many hospitals haven’t even got test kits or ventilators, and citizens without health insurance can’t afford to be tested. When Prince Charles was diagnosed, he was able to quarantine himself from his family in a separate part of the 50,000-acre Balmoral estate, a privilege certainly not extended to most victims of the virus, who will likely infect the friends or family members they live with. In the UK, black and other ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately infected as a result of racialised structural poverty. Anyone can get the virus, but wealth and status may influence your exposure and your recovery.
All historic events affect some form of change, for better or for worse. Covid-19 may have tragically taken thousands of lives, altered our way of life, and devastated the global economy, but something positive can come out if it. It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to come to this realisation, but our essential workers are called this for a reason, and so they should be paid accordingly. Businesses who shorthanded their workers or forced them to keep coming to work should be called out and penalised. Governments who failed to prepare for the impact of the virus and allowed their citizens to pay the ultimate price should be prosecuted. Moving forward, there must be a seismic shift towards a politics of care, to putting people before profit, to aiming for a classless society, and to holding our leaders responsible for their failure to protect their people. The free reign of corporate power stemming from unregulated late capitalism ought to be tossed to the kerb, for if there’s anything this virus has taught us, it’s that when we fall upon dark times, humanity is all we really have.