2020 had started well for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. After securing a large parliamentary majority in the December 2019 election, little stood in the way of securing his promise to ‘get Brexit done’.
Some have suggested he was so busy basking in the glory of meeting the deadline to leave the EU on 31 January that not even the global coronavirus pandemic could get his attention in those early crucial weeks after the WHO declaration. Whilst some, including Johnson himself perhaps, were concerned with how the pandemic might affect plans for Brexit, what became increasingly obvious to many were the ways in which these two momentous, historic events would be interconnected through what they reveal about care, democracy and structural inequalities in the UK.
The pandemic landed in the UK after more than three years of political turmoil and division following the vote to leave the EU in July 2016. The struggle to achieve a political consensus about the UK’s future relationship with Europe had been long and bitter. Many people, however they had voted in the referendum, now just wanted an end to the uncertainty and state of limbo that the politics of Brexit had created. And Boris Johnson appeared to be offering that. How else to explain that a person with an infamous record for arrogance, dishonesty, and appalling public blunders could be voted into a country’s highest political office? Although of course, a template for this kind of leader had already been set in the US.
So as the pandemic approached, Boris Johnson was having his moment in the sun, having achieved his personal ambition to become prime minister. No doubt he expected to be remembered with glory as the great leader who set the UK ‘free’ from the EU. How would such a leader deal with a global health pandemic? Many of us, especially those of us whose prime concern is care, held our breaths and braced ourselves…
The early days … the end of divisions and the emergence of care?
The response to the pandemic from the UK government was slow, and like other populist leaders, Boris Johnson’s reaction was casual and dismissive, insisting on treading a different path to other countries who were already learning painful lessons. When the lockdown finally happened in the UK and the reality of coronavirus began to sink in, a very different kind of politics seemed to emerge. The virus, and the fear it generated, suddenly rendered the divisions that had gripped the UK over the previous 4 years somehow meaningless. The public mood shifted towards a kind of unity and solidarity and a sense that this was something that we were now apparently ‘all in together’. Policy announcements aimed at protecting citizens from the impacts of lockdown (furlough schemes akin to a form of citizens’ income, childcare provision for key workers), which would have been unimaginable during the previous 30 years, were now flowing from the mouths of our political leaders, more usually known for their extreme anti-state intervention views.
This new-found belief in Keynesian economics by our leaders was just part of the surreal world we were now inhabiting. Of course, these measures were underpinned by an economic motive (nothing new there), but they were nevertheless a remarkable about turn after decades of denigration of the public role of the state of caring for its citizens. One could be forgiven for thinking that our leaders had suddenly discovered care ethics! Certainly, the values of care ethics seemed to be ‘everywhere’: people were openly demonstrating care for each other through grass roots mutual aid and community organising to basic kindness and being attentive to the needs of ‘others’ they didn’t personally know.
But as time passed and from the position of now (three months into the crisis) we can see quite clearly that the defining features of the UK government’s management of the pandemic were far from ‘caring’. The lockdown was too late leading to higher death rates, the importance of testing and tracing systems ignored and not put in place, and the failure to provide protective equipment to frontline workers was catastrophic. But in those first few weeks, when we were adjusting to our new reality, working from home, home schooling, and trying to make sure our loved ones were safe, we rallied around the government instruction: ‘Stay home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives’. The mobilisation of public support around the NHS – the publicly funded National Health Service – was it turned out, an early indication of Johnson’s style of government. The communication of the message and controlling the media narrative, regardless of its relationship to the reality of the situation – strategies better suited to running a campaign rather than governing a country in a crisis – were to become Johnson’s trademark.
Inequalities exposed and ‘not taking care’
The NHS has always been a powerful symbol of national pride and the Johnson camp must have considered it was a smart move to rally the nation to its defence. In doing so, they no doubt hoped this would camouflage the actual fragility of the NHS due to the years of deliberate underfunding designed to fragment the system and privatise the services within it. Those working in the NHS were warning of the lack of preparedness in a system that was already in crisis before the pandemic struck. It was not long before we were confronted with the reality of the vital role of care and the near total lack of recognition of this within our political system. Nor could we fail to see that the pandemic was exposing the deep structural inequalities in the UK.
As we rallied around the health and social care workers at the frontline, risking their own lives to care for others, we could also not avoid the fact that so many of these key workers were migrants. As the number of health and care workers who were dying grew, it became impossible not to see that they were disproportionately (90%) Black and Minority Ethnic people. Many of these same ordinary people who ‘we’ are dependent on for our health and care, are not themselves entitled to the very health services in which they work because they are migrants.
The lack of care by the government was also evident in its failure to provide protective equipment or testing for health and social care workers and this has been an enduring feature of the crisis. The sincerity of the gesture of ‘clapping for carers’, was undermined by the reality that those same carers were going to work every day without adequate protective clothing or masks. The weekly ritual of ‘clapping’ started as a mark of solidarity and thankfulness but as the weeks went by, and more healthcare workers were dying and the scandal of protective equipment emerged, it became almost an insult – yes we will clap for you but we will not take care of you as you take care of others.
But the government has shown perhaps an even more shocking lack of care towards the most vulnerable older people who need care. It seems that older people who live in residential care homes were simply not thought about at all in the government initial response to the pandemic. It has emerged that in the effort to ‘protect the NHS’, a policy to discharge people from hospital into residential care homes, without first testing them for coronavirus, introduced and spread the virus to the very group of people known to be most at risk – older people with underlying health conditions. The confirmed numbers of older people who have so far died of coronavirus in care homes is 16,000. This is way beyond ‘care-less’ government.
Brexit and coronavirus – ‘care-less’ government and the crisis in democracy
In the UK we are not just dealing with the effects of the coronavirus – deadly though that is in itself – but the fact that it has landed on a public sector whose infrastructure has been stripped out over years of funding cuts. The people who have been most impacted had already been made ‘precarious’ through structural inequalities, poverty, unemployment, racism, old age and disabilities. The pandemic has exposed the fault lines in our under-funded health and welfare systems sacrificed through a decade of austerity policies, revealing what was already there in terms of the crisis in democracy and the crisis in care.
The impacts of austerity politics have been offered as an explanation for the rise of populist politics and the politics of hate. Those who have been left behind by years of public cuts in social welfare, have turned away from traditional parties that represented the working classes, and are seen as the ideal target group to vote for populist leaders.
But the pandemic has also heightened public awareness of care, its importance for all of us, its lack of recognition and its unequal distribution. When the UK public rallied around the NHS it re-focused our attention on the ideal of collective taking care of each other.
For Boris Johnson, protecting the NHS from the virus was more likely about distracting attention away from the possibility that the public health care system would collapse. The strategy of mobilising a ‘nationalistic mythology’ and the particular power it holds over the imaginations of who ‘we’ are, is one that populists have so successfully harnessed into anti-EU and pro-Brexit sentiment. The language that Boris Johnson uses – battles, heroism, national pride, nostalgia – is not accidental. Like the Vote Leave campaign, the strategy depends on tapping into existing cultural narratives about ‘Great’ Britain to achieve political objectives.
In trying to make sense of the present moment we cannot forget the provenance of this government, why and how it was elected and what it is trying to achieve. The intention is to retain power and push through its political agenda at all costs – and some argue that this is clearly now the agenda of a hard Brexit by ‘disaster neoliberals’. We have already seen, long before the pandemic, that the pursuit of this agenda involves contempt for democratic process by suspending parliament, a lack of transparency and accountability.
The man credited with the success of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, Dominic Cummings, is now the chief (unelected) political advisor to Boris Johnson and we are witnessing the same campaign tactics in place of the proper governance needed to deal with the pandemic. But no amount of ‘controlling the narrative’ and selective use of ‘the science’ has can hide the disastrous handling of the pandemic. So, whilst Boris Johnson is congratulating himself on his success and repeatedly declaring the UK response to coronavirus ‘a remarkable achievement’ we are trying to come to terms with the fact that we have highest death rate in any European country. The official confirmed number of COVID deaths is already past 40,000, although the figures for excess deaths suggest it could be as high as 60,000.
Towards a more caring and democratic world
The pandemic has shown us the value of care, that we can all be vulnerable and need care and that we can care for each other. But mobilising the political response to this will be very challenging, at least in the UK where the combination of no-deal Brexit and the impacts of corona virus are likely to be severe. But there are some important experiences of the pandemic that we must not forget if we want to build a more caring, democratic world:
- The state, when it has the political will to do so, can step in to take responsibility for caring functions – we have seen this happen.
- The selfish individual which is supposed to represent ‘human nature’ is a myth which can be demolished – we know this now through lived experiences of community activism and our concern for each other.
- The current system dominated by neoliberal economic imperatives has created deep, deep inequalities at the expense of many things, and ‘care’ has been the major casualty – we can see this more clearly than ever.
- Structural racism has been exposed in painful and obvious ways by the disproportionate amount of Black and Minority Ethnic people who have died through coronavirus. The Black Lives Matter activism is exposing the ways in which racism and narratives of ‘Britishness’ mobilised by Vote Leave /Brexit need to be confronted.
Now more than ever, care needs to be at the centre of politics and will be vitally important in the struggle ahead.
On Top Mike Gorbell Photo