The myth that we’re all in this together is already wearing thin. COVID-19 has come after ten years of grinding austerity characterised by the gig economy, poverty wages, benefit cuts, attacks on the NHS, and a desperate housing crisis. While the richest 1% have got richer, we’ve had a growth in food banks, child poverty, unaffordable housing and poor health. In fact UK poverty numbers were at their highest level for 18 years even before the coronavirus. Unequal societies are prone to outbreaks of mass disease, and our society gets more unequal with every passing day. Lockdown has shown that this is a public health crisis defined by inequality, and the working class is suffering most.
NHS staff, care workers, transport and supermarket workers are now seen as key workers, but their lives are still not adequately valued. The lack of PPE in hospitals is appalling though not surprising (a lot of the MPs now praising nurses as heroes voted against a pay rise for them 3 years ago). Workers in care homes (mostly on minimum wage), shop and transport workers are vulnerable and dying. In London alone 21 transport workers have died from COVID-19 and some of those still working are so scared they’re using shower curtains on their buses for protection.
The whole stay at home message is impossible for a lot of gig economy workers. If they don’t work, they don’t eat. Most won’t be entitled to the 80% wage subsidy, and even those workers who are find that the missing 20% leaves a massive gap in their income (if you’re on £9.45 an hour and watching every penny, that loss is massive). So far there’s been 1.2 million new benefit claims since the outbreak and unemployment is edging past 3 million, the worst figures in 30 years. The gig economy workers who’ve lost their jobs and who don’t have a computer or access to the internet (since all the libraries are shut) are finding it impossible to claim any benefits. And for those who have managed to claim, there’s still a five week wait for all new Universal Credit claimants, though this could get longer because of the high demand.
Which means many more workers are turning to food banks. Almost 2 million people were already undernourished in Britain before coronavirus hit, with one in five children living with an adult experiencing what’s officially known as ‘food insecurity’. And now there’s been a 300% increase in food bank use at a time when the food banks themselves are struggling to stay open. Up and down the country most food banks are run by volunteers who are older and now self-isolating. And with fewer donations supplies are down while need goes up. Research by the Food Foundation found that 3 million people live in homes where someone has been forced to skip some meals, and 1.5 million people regularly go without food for a whole day because they have no money or access to food. Child poverty was already high (30% of kids were classed as living in poverty). 14 million people, nearly one quarter of the population, were scraping a living before the coronavirus hit. They’re now being joined by families who were earning decent money and are now on Universal Credit.
Lockdown for many of these families isn't the same as lockdown for people living in large houses with gardens. If you share a couple of rooms in a flat, self-isolation is a joke. Kids in cramped, overcrowded homes won’t get the home schooling middle class families will get. If they don’t have the internet, and many of them don’t, they’re pretty much locked out of the education system. And because of the housing crisis, because rents have been soaring for years, because housing benefit doesn’t cover the full cost, a lot of low paid workers have no choice than to break social distancing guidelines and go out to work so their landlords can continue to make a profit. Low paid workers and their families will bear the brunt of this crisis like they bear the brunt of every other, and they won’t have the luxury of prioritising their health and safety over paying for food and rent. Already, according to research carried out by Opinium, 6 out of 10 renters have suffered financially from the lockdown and 1 in 5 had been forced to choose between paying their rent this month or buying food. 1 in 4 had already moved out to live with friends or family, knowing they couldn’t afford to keep going.
Private landlords have access to mortgage holidays but they don’t have to pass this on to their tenants, who have mostly been left to pay rent with no income and a 5 week wait for benefits. And they’ll be left to pay hundreds or thousands of pounds of rent arrears when lockdown’s over. Private landlords aren’t alone in cashing in. Utility companies haven’t been asked to make any sacrifices, nor have the banks who are enjoying government loan guarantees which gives them protection from the risk of extending credit to struggling businesses. Some companies wanting to downsize have seen the perfect opportunity to lay off workers or are just taking the opportunity to pocket government support and refusing to top up wages from their own accounts. Then there’s the hedge funds who are making billions from market bets during the pandemic (one London hedge fund, Ruffer Investment, made £2.4bn as investors panicked about the global shutdown).
We have no idea how many people will die because of this pandemic, but the most vulnerable of our class are the bulk of the sick and dying. Yet when the lockdown is over and the politicians, businesses and trade union leaders focus on getting the system of profit-making back on its feet again we can be sure that the ‘new normal’ for the working class will be worse than ever. The virus isn’t the cause of the capitalist crisis, it’s a symptom of it. The real sickness is capitalism itself. Now is a good time to start thinking of a better way to organise society and create one that’ll look after everyone, and not take workers’ lives for granted.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 51) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.