openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Stop blaming ordinary people for the UK’s pandemic failures

Boris Johnson has presided over a public policy disaster. Now, he wants you to blame your neighbours. Don't.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
28 March 2020, 12.01am
Boris Johnson likes to ashew blame
PA images, all rights reserved

“It’s because of them that Hartlepool is a shithole.”

They were pointing at Craig, a friendly former fisherman who had lost his job when he had to care for his dying mother, had lost his home because Universal Credit didn’t cover the rent, and had lost his legs because sleeping rough had given him infected sores, leading to amputation.

I was in the town ahead of the UK’s grey, December election, and had sat with Craig in a doorway to interview him. He was desperate to get rid of the Tories and their benefits system, and scared of two teenagers who had burned down his tent and regularly assaulted him and his homeless friends.

An hour or so later, he told me that a pair of boys circling on bikes nearby were these very teenage tormentors, and so I stood between them and him, conducting one of the strangest interviews of my life, asking why they spend their spare time touring the town, beating up rough sleepers – something they freely admitted.

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“We clean filth like that off the streets”, they said, using derogatory terms for black and British Asian people as well as beggars.

I spoke to those boys for perhaps twenty minutes as the evening chill descended, putting to them that it was politicians, bosses and those with power who had caused their problems, not a former fisherman like Craig. But it was clear that the powerful weren’t close enough to be relevant. To feel any sense of agency in their situation, they needed someone they could swing a boot at. And so, to use Craig’s word, they “tortured” him.

Structures of feeling

Like a tsunami washing onto a contoured shore, every crisis arrives in a context. Some of that context is material – the state of a health service, the vulnerability or security produced by different economic models, the capacity for care.

And some of it is cultural: the crisis rushes up the glens of people’s ideological assumptions, the stories they tell themselves and each other about the world, the familiar lines of argument laid down by the past and the institutions which have shaped it, the synapses already formed.

The Welsh critic Raymond Williams called these crevices in our society ‘structures of feeling’ – the various potential common senses, vying to emerge at a moment in history.

And in that landscape, one key ravine is the conversation about blame. Carved into our minds by the most powerful, this gorge turns in a subtle arc, gently channelling accountability away from those who are most responsible towards those with least influence; away from the collective to the individual.

Through forty years of neoliberalism, we’ve been taught not to see problems as shared, but as personal, that they should be solved not together through democracy, but individually, through the market, personal behaviour change and atomised responsibility, through gendered ideas of ‘bucking up’ or ‘calming down’. And so when people fail, we are taught not to question our rulers or their system which trips us all up, sometimes, but the individuals who have fallen today.

The teenagers I met in Hartlepool weren’t born violent. They had been taught to lash out at those who stood out rather than those who stood over them. Not everyone will follow to such violent conclusions the logic laid down by the media, culture and economy that difference is driving our destruction. But if people see no path to influencing the powerful, some will summon what agency they have, and kick down.

If we hate their actions, we must loathe the lessons they were taught even more. Racism built to justify empire has been repurposed into migrant-bashing in the era of austerity. The impoverished are chided for being poor, women are blamed for being raped and all of us are told off for failing to reduce our atomised, personalised, de-politicised carbon footprints, while governments quietly fail to do anything serious about climate breakdown.

Take any of the world’s vast, collective problems, and our rulers have become expert in ensuring that those with the power to solve it blur into the background of our mental picture of what’s going on.

In our globalised and privatised world, where the location of power is confusing and contested, much of politics is this battle over blame. And in countries where an oligarch-owned press props up the regime, governments can rely on the help of the media.

This has never been more true than with coronavirus.

Blame in a time of coronavirus

In the UK we aren’t just dealing with a highly contagious disease. We are also witnessing two public policy disasters, one fast and one slow: the contradictory and confused messaging around ‘herd immunity’ and a decade of austerity.

But the mostly pro-regime press has been hard at work, ensuring that the powerful aren’t the subject of people’s wrath, that our so-called “covidiot” neighbours are blamed instead.

First, they told us that panic buyers were responsible for food shortages. Then the Financial Times’s Greg Gallus worked out that grocery shopping had increased by only 10% – what you’d expect from people working from home, eating lunches in rather than out, not going out for dinner, and trying to make fewer trips to the shops.

The problem isn’t the odd person frantically over-buying (though they certainly exist). It’s the consequence of lots of us doing what we are told. It’s the fact that supermarkets have built increasingly precarious just-in-time supply chains, balancing our food distribution system on ever more stretched tightropes in order to secure the finest margins. And that the government failed to anticipate what would happen to this system in an emergency.

Next, health secretary Matt Hancock described those who went to beaches and parks last weekend as “selfish”. But over the previous fortnight, his own government had issued confusing and contradictory advice, with Boris Johnson initially suggesting a strategy of ‘herd immunity’, and downplaying the risks we face – declaring that he had shaken the hands of people in a hospital with coronavirus patients. The day before announcing his lockdown, Johnson talked about the benefits of going to the park.

It’s not surprising that both the prime minister and the heir to the throne have now caught the virus: both continued to meet hundreds of people until recently, setting the worst possible example and epitomising a lax response from the British state as a whole. It’s no wonder people were confused, or sceptical about the scale of the crisis.

The mixed messaging doesn’t just come from the government, but also from its outriders, with The Daily Telegraph running a column this week saying that Johnson was wrong to U-turn from his herd immunity strategy. “The government has decided to trash the economy rather than expose itself to political criticism,” wrote columnist Sherelle Jacobs, while the paper gave (pro-lockdown) Fraser Nelson’s column the headline ‘Is coronavirus a terrifying killer or a manageable risk? We still don't know’.

In the wake of the Andrew Wakefield scandal and two decades of disastrous climate change denial, newspapers surely have a social responsibility to be calm and cautious when contradicting scientific consensus, not turn serious questions of health communication into flesh for bare-toothed columnists to spar over.

Despite continuing to spread confusion about the virus, the Tory press has been more than happy to denounce people who are confused. This week, the Telegraph and Sun websites both ran the same video of police telling a small number of sunbathers (I count around ten) scattered across a park in London to ‘go home’, while one barbecue in the Midlands on Tuesday got significant coverage across the press and social media.

The Daily Mail’s online splash earlier in the week, which also led the Telegraph’s email, is a claim to have found the UK’s first patient, who the Mail dub a ‘super-spreader’.

This idea of ‘super-spreaders’ has been ubiquitous across much of the media throughout this crisis, despite repeated requests from scientists to stop such stigmatising nonsense. As Sylvie Briand, director of pandemic and epidemic diseases at the World Health Organization, has said: “We need to talk about super-spreading events and not people.”

Now that the lockdown has begun, images are circulting of crammed tube carriages in London and busy commuter routes, and we’re encouraged to believe that these aren’t all ‘key workers’, that these people are being foolish and selfish.

But the truth is that Boris Johnson has left workers up and down the country at the mercy of their employers over whether or not they are expected to clock on. My colleague Caroline Molloy and I have spoken to people working in factories, hotels, debt collection agencies, garden centres and telesales who are being forced to go in or lose their job. One construction worker I’ve been in touch with says he was sacked for raising concerns that his building site was taking no social distancing measures. The government has done little to help.

The Tories have spent a decade waging war on public services and social security. They announced a coronavirus strategy which was distinctly at odds with WHO advice, and different from most of the rest of the world, only to rapidly U-turn when they realised how many would die.

The government’s announcements of support for those struggling to make ends meet through the crisis have been patchy, insufficient and slow, starting with a budget which utterly underestimated the scale of the challenge, followed by a business loan scheme which failed to consider the indebtedness of huge numbers of companies, followed by a wage support scheme which forgot about the self-employed, followed by future funds for some of the self-employed which will allow huge numbers to slip through the net.

Millions, from migrants to renters to those on zero-hours contracts, have had insufficient help and must choose between COVID-19 and hunger. Unknown thousands more have lost their jobs due to Johnson’s dither and delay, and are falling into a safety net that he and his Conservative colleagues have cut to pieces over a decade.

Looking across the websites of the main pro-regime papers, though, it’s hard to find any prominent stories criticising these policies or doing anything to hold the government to account, despite almost every story being about the virus. Instead, any criticism of government strategy is attacked with a volley of complaints that “the left is politicising coronavirus” – as though there is anything more political than a pandemic.

Of course people have free will, but only in the context of our material circumstances and the information presented to us. Of course we should support each other to stay safe. But we shouldn’t forget that that’s the first responsibility of the state. Of course we must all play our part in preventing the spread of this virus. But we should also be clear about who has the most power, how they have failed us and what they must do differently – now.

Climate of blame

Blaming people who are forced to risk their health so they can feed their families is twisted and cruel. But it is also dangerous because of how people respond to it, how it infects our structures of feeling. We can learn a lot about this from similar conversations about climate breakdown.

In 2009, prime minister Gordon Brown was coming under fire from a then-unprecedented climate movement, which criticised his policies from Heathrow expansion to coal power. The government’s response was to launch a £6 million publicity campaign, ‘Act on CO2’. It bought up billboards and TV ads and deluged the country with publicity, encouraging us all to take personal action to reduce our carbon footprint.

I asked Jamie Clarke, director of the climate change communications think tank Climate Outreach, about the impact of this campaign and others like it. He was brutal.

“Substantive changes in the behaviours of individual citizens have not been forthcoming,” he said. “Indeed government-backed social marketing campaigns have been associated with undermining public support for climate action.”

While it didn’t succeed in changing behaviour, the ‘Act on CO2’ campaign does seem to have helped change beliefs: it laid the foundation for a 10% surge in the number of people who said they didn’t believe in climate change.

The lesson was an important one: push blame down to individual citizens and many will respond by rejecting the premise of the conversation as a whole. It’s not surprising we’re seeing the rise of corona-conspiracies.

Blame in a neoliberal world

Even more dangerously, though, when responsibility is cast onto an atomised population, it doesn’t land evenly. It is channelled down the social structures which already exist. Race, class, gender, sexuality: blame is always mobilised against the already marginalised.

We’ve seen this in waves of Sinophobia across the world, with people of East Asian ethnicity reporting a surge in hate crimes. In Italy, far-right leader Matteo Salvini has promoted the idea that African migrants are failing to follow social distancing rules at their markets. Transphobes have been quick to find ways to talk about their own obsessions.

Despite experts saying that closing borders is ineffective in the fight against COVID-19, because it means sick people end up travelling on more circuitous routes rather than getting to isolated care as quickly as possible, checkpoints have sprung up across the world as foreigners are scapegoated. Germany has stopped taking in refugees.

In some cases, normal power structures have been inverted: white South Africans are getting the brunt of the blame for the virus in a land they have long dominated, and Uganda has closed its borders to Westerners. But in most cases, it is those with the least power, who therefore have been the least able to change our course through this crisis, who are landed with the most blame, being the outsiders people are already used to ostracising.

I wrote last week about how neoliberal capitalism has transformed politics from a social process in which we all participate into a thing, far away from us, that we all watch on telly – or don’t. And as this version of politics has been taken far away from most people, it has shrunk from view. In this context, like the teenagers I met in Hartlepool, it’s hard for us to see how distant rulers are responsible for our vast social failings. And so it’s easier to point our fingers at every other kind of ‘other’, while TV-star prime ministers, presidents and monarchs become symbols not of policy failures, but of national pride, and surge in the polls as we rally round the flag.

Such a response will ensure that our reckless rulers continue to hear only the voices of the powerful. It will prevent the wisdom of the crowd from being heeded, just as we need it most. In these days of heightened hygiene, it’s more important than ever not to be a boot licker.

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