COVID-19, or any other disease for that matter, is not ‘a great leveller’. To treat it as such is an insult to millions of people all over the world, for whom the global pandemic will only exacerbate their current conditions while mainstream narratives continue to tell them ‘we’re all in this together’. We are not.
From the beginning of the country’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the gulf between rich and poor – and the government’s failure to acknowledge this – was immediately apparent. If you live in a house of shared occupancy, or don’t live in a space with enough storage, then lockdown measures become next to impossible. A weekly shopping trip when you cannot store more than a few days’ worth of food is not viable, and when there are multiple families living in one space, telling them and the rest of the country that their escape outside is ‘selfish’ is not just wrong, it’s disrespectful.
Coronavirus is disproportionately impacting ethnic minorities, here and across the world. Shockingly, in Chicago, 70% of COVID-19 victims were black – despite the fact that they represent only 33% of the population. In the UK, the worst hit area for COVID-19 cases is Brent, which has 250 cases for every 100,000 people; it also has the second highest percentage of individuals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. While only 2% of white British households are classified as overcrowded, 30% of Bangladeshi households and 15% of black African households are classified as such. With increased police powers to help enforce lockdown rules, overzealous policing may only exacerbate the problems of those who often bear the brunt of excessive police force. While we build up narratives of resentment and ‘selfishness’, we feed into toxic renderings of race relations in Britain which feed off economic inequality to justify prejudice.
Popular labels of ‘Covidiots’ only seek to further distance us from the reality of many peoples’ lives: in some cases, their one excursion may be the chance to escape an abusive household, a toxic environment or the crippling anxiety and depression that isolation may produce. If, that is, you are able to isolate alone. Arguably, the true covidiots here are those who seek to demonise those less fortunate than themselves, while failing to realise that these are precisely the people that we need to look after and appreciate.
Our ‘key workers’ are precisely those members of society who are in lower paid jobs, and are overwhelmingly made up of ethnic minorities and immigrants – many of the people who, before we realised quite how much we needed them, were going to be refused long entry work visas because they weren’t “skilled”. Despite the rhetoric of war surrounding COVID-19 which often makes us forget this, none of these people signed up to risk their lives and potentially those of their families. Regardless, they continue to work to allow the country to function despite the risk because they cannot work from home. They continue to stack shelves, drive delivery vans, collect refuse, fix NHS equipment, man the checkouts, help the elderly and the vulnerable – staying at home is a luxury. It is not a right.
After years of being underpaid and undervalued, we have finally given these people the title of ‘key worker’ – and a weekly round of applause. It is an act of British bonhomie and generosity that truly excuses the years of pay cuts and being ignored by the administration that now relies on them so heavily. Yet our health secretary has maintained that now is not the time to discuss pay rise for nurses and other NHS workers. If not now, when? The family of a nurse who cared for Boris Johnson on her 48-hour shift while he was recovering from COVID-19 reported how she was ‘blown away’ by his appreciation as he told the country how the NHS saved his life, “no question”. However, despite this, we are still failing to acknowledge all of the people who are so crucial to keeping the country running. The NHS, 40% of which is made up of ethnic minority workers, has been overwhelmingly whitewashed in mainstream coverage; even as we try to celebrate the incredible work of our key workers, we are building insidious accounts about who really matters in this crisis.
We continue to be fed narratives of the strength of British national spirit, or good old British ‘grit’ that will continue to get us through this pandemic. What we are seeing isn’t “national spirit” or “British grit and determination” it is a systemic failure to support and appreciate the vulnerable members of society. When we finally emerge from the mist of this pandemic, it is these people who will suffer the most.