‘I’m sorry if you think Britain will emerge from the virus a kinder, more equal place. It won’t’

The Herald, by Kevin McKenna
11th April 2020

In seeking to convey scale and urgency we reach for superlatives and glibly scatter doomsday scenarios to describe this global health emergency. The one that seems most apt and thus most commonly used is that coronavirus is a “world-changing catastrophe”. This is a “seismic” event of such “unprecedented” force that the world will be compelled to alter profoundly the way that it conducts its business.

The message underlying such foreboding always carries a hint of optimism: lions will lie down with lambs and swords will be beaten into ploughshares. The avarice of raw capitalism will somehow be overwhelmed by waves of neighbourly kindness and community goodwill. This global catastrophe is different from all others because – get this – “it is no respecter of wealth or status”. After all; wasn’t the Prime Minister infected with Covid-19 and several members of his cabinet? Multi-millionaires can’t access their usual parachutes: private health; island boltholes and political chicanery.

Britain mobilises its streets for grand occasions like the Olympics and royal fecundity and to mark military adventures. This spirit is manifest in the weekly “clap for the NHS”. Of course a big hand for the NHS won’t provide it with the protective equipment and tests it urgently requires. But you can’t really knock it: they are as much about reassuring ourselves as applauding front-line NHS workers.

In the years beyond coronavirus, though, these displays will be procured by government to provide warmth when the economic chill begins to bite. Look, you might be losing your job and the banks might have swiped your business but wasn’t it great how we all looked out for each other? At some point before the end of May, Boris Johnson (happily spared, we hope) will probably announce a national day of thanksgiving in early autumn to celebrate our deliverance from the contagion. There will be street parties as well as that other great British symbol of national defiance, bunting.

But don’t expect the world to change. A lot of money, effort and ingenuity will be spent on the task of convincing us that it has – much of it on bunting – but the way that global wealth is retained or deployed will remain the same, just as it did following the Iraqi wars, the 9/11 atrocities and the 2008 banking crash. Each of these seemed to provide opportunities to step back and evaluate the choices and behaviours which led to them. But after a respectable period of moral introspection the bacchanal resumed.

Following the credit crash of 2008 we had an opportunity to pause and reflect on how the financial industry had been permitted to cause this. A lot of effort was also expended in this realm to avert our eyes. Much of it in evolving a unique language and eco-structure that cast a cloak of invisibility around its Byzantine array of transactions and instruments. Within months the bonus culture had returned; precipitous risk was being rewarded and RBS was taking down small businesses using its Global Restructuring Group.

Already, the vultures are circling over this pandemic. You won’t actually see any coronavirus prospectuses being issued by hedge funds but the feeding frenzy has started. Some hedge funds have been quickly out of the traps to feast on the billions to be made from market bets during the health crisis. Coronavirus billionaires are being created every day.

This has led Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC to rebuke their sense of morality. This was after it emerged that one city hedge fund had made £2.4bn speculating on boutique markets created in the chaos of anticipated economic catastrophe.

The first adverts appeared this week for temporary work at Glasgow’s NHS Louisa Jordan hospital for treating Covid-19 patients. The positions advertised included porters and other ancillary staff. The job descriptions made it clear that successful candidates would be undertaking a wide assortment of tasks exposing them daily to infection.

One advised candidates that they would be “responsible for responding to cardio arrests and providing trolley and supporting equipment to the incident”. Another advised them to ensure “that all equipment used to undertake the role are to the required standards to support safe working practices”. How can they be expected to do that when the Government has failed to do so? And all of this for just over £9 an hour, barely above the national minimum wage.

All over the UK our most vulnerable women and children are being exposed to abuse in their own homes at the hands of violent male partners and relatives. Only a quarter of “at risk children” – those under the care of social services – are attending school now, though places have been made for them. The majority of us will soon come to know how much our finances will be damaged. But in some of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities a vast and terrible hidden apocalypse is also happening. For these people there may never be a recovery.

In these communities, coronavirus is merely the latest foe that must be added to their daily list of existing social challenges. The UK Government abandoned them when the economy was robust (and we now know that the task of improving their circumstances was available all the time). Instead they were ordered to bear the brunt of austerity. There has been no evidence to suggest this Conservative Government will prioritise them in the real austerity that’s to come. Instead they’ll be asked to make do with a street party, bunting and a national day of appreciation.

It’s these communities that provide the labour for the low-paid, hitherto unappreciated jobs that have kept Britain’s lights on. They’ve fed us; consoled us; treated us and buried our loved ones. In doing so they have imperilled their own health and that of their families much more than the rest of us.

If the going rate for such self-sacrifice is £9 an hour while the profits for disaster capitalism run into billions you can exclude me from those optimistic that the world will emerge from this chastened and wiser.