Just as [Britain’s] final exit from the EU comes into view, noise from the media and politics about Covid-19 is sounding discomfortingly similar to the furies that erupted around the 2016 referendum.
On one side stands the political right, opposed to lockdown, apparently spurning the advice of experts, and seemingly convinced that a mixture of true-Brit common sense and derring-do will somehow see us through. The left, meanwhile, emphasises the importance of “the science”, and the prospect of disaster. As in the US, it is beginning to feel like any contentious political question will now trigger these polarised responses – not necessarily in the population at large, but certainly among the people whose opinions define what passes for the national conversation.
News coverage of the second wave has so far tended to focus on which places should go in which official tiers, the distinction between pubs and restaurants, and the decision to send students back to universities. What has not been discussed nearly as much is the plain fact that the coronavirus crisis – even more so in its second phase – is all about basic inequalities, and the kind of questions of work, housing and poverty that deep crises always bring to the surface. In other words, Covid-19 is a class issue. That may sound simplistic, but what it actually denotes is an intricate set of considerations that the argument over lockdown is not acknowledging.
Since the start of the crisis, I have been regularly talking to many of the leaders in the north of England whose anger at condescending treatment from Boris Johnson and his colleagues continues to make the headlines. As many of them see it, one reason for the recent increases in infection is that the initial lockdown affected many of their areas differently than more affluent places. Rather than retreating inside to bake their own bread and have work meetings on Zoom, people in such trades as construction, warehousing and care work had to carry on venturing outside and mixing with others in the first wave, so levels of the virus remained comparatively high, even before the summer reopening then took them back to dangerous levels. Clearly, the ability to render yourself housebound is also dependent on whether your domestic environment makes remaining at home either viable or all but impossible. The basic point was recently nailed by the Financial Times writer Anjana Ahuja: “This crisis has broadly separated us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich.” [Continue reading…]