‘Even in such arduous times, as well as remembering to wash our hands, we need to remember to check our privilege!’
On Tuesday, March 23rd, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the stringent stay-at-home lockdown in which we remain. Much to our amazement, our expectations of what lockdown would feel like seem to have been formed only by films like Contagion and 40 Days of Night, rather than reality. Rather than cascades of military trucks tearing through Hyde Park, we have been presented with quite the opposite; Instagram challenges, Tik Tok celebs, fitness fanatics, and ridiculous conspiracy theorist's posting on social media. With that said, the current climate of the pandemic has left a lot of us with more time to be thinking both critically and consciously about the culture of post-modern Britain.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 beetled its way into the crevices of Britain's homes, the Conservative government has consistently muttered a repetitive blanket statement that ‘we’re all in this together’. Experts stated that those who are at higher risk to the virus are the following: the elderly (70+), those with pre-existing health conditions, and those who have entered the last trimester of pregnancy. Regardless of the danger to health, everyone's lives have been disrupted in some way, even if minuscule, over recent weeks.
However, the Conservatives' statement of collective suffering is a discourse to be deservedly debunked. To reiterate author Owen Jones' statement, ‘The coronavirus outbreak is not just a public health crisis, it's a social crisis'. Indubitably, for those who are poor, the Covid-19 outbreak causes detriment to every aspect of life. And here's why:
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that "the advice is crystal clear - you should stay at home" unless you have one of the key reasons to go out: exercise, shopping, in case of a medical emergency or to do work that cannot be done at home. Supermarket staff, warehouse staff, bus and taxi drivers, local shop keepers, our postmen and women, and prison staff are just a selection of the job roles that are regarded as essential. Those who fall under the category of key workers (the majority of them being working class) are still having to endure the potentially life-threatening task of leaving their homes and becoming exposed to the infection. Unable to be tested quickly without access to private health care, the working-classes have been advised to self-isolate if displaying any of the symptoms linked to Covid-19. However, without the luxury of residing in a cordoned off wing of a stately manor home, the entire household is at risk of becoming susceptible to the virus.
While politics became increasingly divisive, there were, for the most part, no ill wishes sent in regards to the news of Boris Johnson's admission to intensive care after fallen victim to the virus. However, as he remains alive and well, the veil of hypocrisy has been lifted, as Johnson was reported to have spent his time recovering on the 1,500 acres of land that belongs to the 16th-century manor house set in Buckinghamshire countryside. Meanwhile, a concerning 5.5 million Brits have been reported to be enduring lockdown in homes that have poor infrastructure, excessive mould and damp, as well as a small amount of garden space. So, whilst many bask in the sun drinking homemade cocktails, it's clear that there are silver linings for some of us. However, the pre-existing issues that affect the lives of the poor are being greatly exacerbated . Even in such arduous times, as well as remembering to wash our hands, we need to remember to check our privilege! Nevertheless, when we dissect the government's instruction to ‘stay at home’, (all while wearing gloves, of course) we must observe that this is a far more strenuous task on the lives of the poor than it is the rich.
Not only have we been advised to stay home, but experts have also frequently reminded Britons to ensure that they maintain a balanced diet. The UK Association of Dieticians have stated that ‘if you're self-isolating and especially if you have symptoms, it is important to maintain good nutrition and hydration’. With no signs of a vaccine in sight, a shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE), and world leaders like Trump babbling absurd advice to inject disinfectant as a form of immunity, controlling our eating habits to prevent infection seems to be one bit of advice that could be deemed doable. But let's change our gloves, and dig a little deeper. Pre-COVID crisis, Trussell Trust charity claimed those who used food banks were primarily the unemployed and those affected by five policy reforms implemented by the coalition government. These policies are: the rollout of universal credit, increases in benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the benefits freeze, and the withdrawal of disability benefits – all had "sizeable and significant effects” in the use of food banks.
Food bank users and those with low incomes already have difficulty in affording a nutritionally balanced diet, and the pandemic has worsened the situation as food banks were suspended and retailers continued to have supply issues. COVID- 19 has caused food supply issues, particularly at food banks. Once again, it is those with a low socio-economic status that are being kicked whilst already down. The harsh reality is setting in. How can the wounds of the poor start to heal, when austerity remains? The poor are in essence being fed to the deadly virus. After all, poor nutrition is linked with the plight of poverty, and we all know how important it is to maintain a strong immune system in time likes these.
Furthermore, France has recently declared that they are heading for recession, and the World Trade Organisation has projected Britain to experience the deepest economic downturn in history- how will this affect Britons who are already in dire need of financial aid? Firstly, the British government have already put into place strategies to tackle financial downfalls. Workers can claim 80% of their salaries, up to £2,500 per month, in furlough pay from their employers who are now receiving grants from HMRC. Further support is being offered to new and existing Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit claimants, who are seeing an increase in payment by £20 per week. As well as mortgage payment breaks and bans on the eviction of tenants renting property. At first glance, such a security net appears effective, but as the mystical fog created by middle-class heroism fades, the question of equity arises. Those who are on a minimum wage are already expected to receive a low income. Therefore, once put on furlough, wages need to be stretched even further. An individual working the UK's average working hours of 42.5 will have a mere £249 earned before tax per week.
Cut-off dates also affect an individual's entitlement to receiving a furlough wage. Initially, those on payroll from the 28th February were only eligible to be a part of the furlough scheme. The clauses were flagged as problematic. With a fast-changing workforce and economy, many individuals were starting new jobs, which ultimately means they were not on the payroll for the 28th February. Individuals have been sadly temporarily laid off without pay or even worse, made redundant. Fury filled the bellies of many, and a change in the extended cut off dates were demanded. In response, the Treasury altered the cut-off date to the 19th March. However, unhinging the change of the policy, it becomes apparent that it only offers to help is to those who are paid weekly yet the majority of the country's payroll is monthly. So, choosing to change the clause date to the 19th, isn't sufficient and can certainly be described as a plastic policy.
Thousands are still in need of financial relief due to this predicament and are therefore opting for universal credit. But this safety net is far from flawless, as applicants have to wait for up to 5 weeks for the first payment. Advance payments are offered to tie over those who can't afford to wait, but will eventually have to pay back the money borrowed and is deducted from their first Universal credit instalment. This throws those who are already in need further into the sea of inequity with punctured armbands.
Keeping roofs over heads will become increasingly difficult as the government's recent guidance clearly states that tenants are still legally obliged to pay rent and landlords are still able to issue eviction notices to renters who enter into rent debt. The impending doom of eviction lingers over those on a low income, as the eviction process will begin as soon as the temporary ban is lifted. All the while, claims circulate that MPS are being handed an additional £10,000 to support them as they work from home during the lockdown.
Baked with a recipe of inequity and death, the cherry on top of this cake is the lack of information; information of how long the crisis will last. The worry will be coniderably detrimental to the mental health of our poorer communities across the country. But yet again, the psychosocial dilemma has not been fully flagged and nests in the abyss of Tory ignorance.
It's fair to say the pandemic has left a large number of us feeling as though we’ve been cast in a film. And if that were the case, is it possible to declare Austerity and social order as being cast as accomplices in the COVID killing spree?
Photo's Couresy of Lewis Reeves who is working on an amazing zine called 'Persist, Exist, Resist' and it contains my art series which is called All In This Together, amongst other pieces about mental health, exercise and how to keep busy during lockdown. The Zine comes courtesy of band Elephant Trees, you can check out their Instagram HERE.