openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Two viruses

Covid-19 has exposed the flaws in our system

Julian Sayarer
19 March 2020
City of London, seen from Tower Bridge
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Tristan Surtel

It was plain to see that the country had already fallen apart. That was nothing to do with the EU referendum, though the virus of course exposed the indulgence that it had always been to spend three years and two elections trying to settle the previously unimportant issue of the UK’s EU membership.

Nor was the suggestion that the country had fallen apart anything to do with the devolved nations, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and their growing wish to leave the UK – though this too was telling. It was internally, inwards on itself, that the country had already fallen apart, and in hindsight it was obvious that the drama of all those constitutional cleaves each indicated that a material shock of any scale at all would be enough to see it off.

The coronavirus had been transmitted first of all from wild animals contaminating a food chain in China, but in the end its impact would be measured by whether humans could remain civilised during the pandemic. The virus was going to be total, and for that reason it was going to expose every frailty in the system into which it was injected. Like a dye that runs along the veins of a leaf or root, it would map society for us.

In the UK, the nearness of the last general election made the pandemic both harder and easier to come to terms with. Harder in so much as it was frustrating to have been ignored; easier in so much as our underlying fragility was unsurprising. The Labour party had argued that the National Health Service was at breaking point. The Labour party had argued that most of the population was living hand-to-mouth, with scarcely a month of savings backed-up to tide them over. The media had responded to these sensible-seeming concerns with the suggestion that the party arguing them posed a danger to the country.

In most respects it had always been clear that the vilification of the Labour party was, at root, the response to a diagnosis of a political-economy in need of the sort of fundamental changes the virus would itself demand. Where then did that leave us, if the national media and much of the political class had been structured to oppose the sort of changes that would soon prove essential? Looked at in such a way, was the media itself, and the public information system it created, not an extension of a public health crisis, or at least a breeding-ground for germs?

The Labour party had gone into the election, if not the last three elections, with a policy platform that you might as well call ‘adult’: a costed manifesto that outlined the scale of the investment now clearly required, the policies on which to spend. Along with much of the political class, the media, and some inside the Labour party, had suggested that – up against a government that had neither costed, explained nor even really made policy prescriptions – it was the Labour party that was not to be trusted with government. Looked at plainly – the facts suggested that the opposite was true. Everybody had known exactly what they’d be getting in a Boris Johnson government, but the propaganda had been disseminated, and the decisions cast, in a time when it was easy enough for things to feel inconsequential.

Similar to Theresa May before him, Boris Johnson was soon revealed by circumstances to be unfit for the job. If politics in this age was a question of administration and appearance, a stylised veneer on top of fundamentals set by others, it went without saying that the most appropriate and conventionally popular politicians would be those who performed best as mere administrators, and within that register of appearance. Jeremy Corbyn, it had once been said, was a “good and honest man, but not a leader”. None had mentioned what qualities made a leader, if not goodness, and honesty.

Both Oxford University, and the Tory party it supplied with politicians, had refined their mechanisms to craft and then elevate precisely the type of politician who sought to thrive in verse rather than virtue. May had performed as a karaoke Thatcher for her time in office, and as the virus hit it was evident that Johnson relished all the more his brief stint as a karaoke Churchill, quickly announcing that Britons would have to bury their loved ones too soon. The problem was that, once the music stopped, and people were still looking at him, he had little to say, and nothing to sing. Johnson was a politician chosen for edifice, not structure. And Britain’s structural failing was about to expose him along with it.

But it would not stop there. Coronavirus exposed also that the journalist’s mandate of speaking truth to power had been handed to sycophants who instead pursued a mandate more like talking shit for money. Coronavirus would expose that such a failure, a dereliction of duty, came with costs that would be borne by those who were least responsible. Coronavirus exposed the particularly painful and gutless version of UK neoliberalism, where we had planned to master the movement of money so as to pay others to make things for us, a logic which worked fine until you had no company to make a ventilator that could help you breathe through the frothing sputum, and yet not enough money to pay others to give you their precious few. It was, all told, the generational failure of a particularly witless, artless, craftless politics.

Having seen in the previous week’s Tory budget that it had won – in principle if not extent – the argument on economic management, as the virus prepared to land, the Labour party was also presented with final evidence that the UK’s social contract had been shredded, and was no longer functioning. Whichever candidate subsequently won the leadership of the party, nothing would be so discredited than the idea of the political centre, of a so-called middle ground that left millions to teeter on the very tightrope which was in its narrowness treated as if a precise, accurate balance, rather than a critically fragile one.

To this extent, the virus had at least settled any number of policy debates. Sick pay, real wages, universal basic income for the duration of the quarantine, a rent freeze; only these measures, each of them anathema to the orthodoxy we knew, would steer society out of the crisis without a major loss of life and suffering that could happen irrespective of infection. Without action, good businesses could be left to fail while bad ones, the largest, were always quick to go cap-in-hand and entitled to the government. As a whole, people already had nothing to believe in or abide to beyond their weekly paycheque and cheap consumer finance. The cheap consumer finance would keep going, but the paycheques might not. Banks had already talked about mortgage payment suspensions for the infected, but that failed to account for those who would not be infected but nevertheless could not work. All those tenants I knew, an entire generation of us, braced for a rage at landlords given mortgage holidays but – typical for their calling – not necessarily passing it on to those tenants who actually paid the mortgage.

In short, the coming of the virus was like a punctuation mark that made real every abstract fury a generation was already feeling. With next to nothing to our names, and the jobs cancelling quickly, the pandemic made plain the failure of the society in which we were supposed to have been stakeholders. Airlines and rail operators, all the familiar culprits, quickly began asking for state money, and while the culture of corporate hand-outs had never quite stopped, it seemed impossible for the government – as it had done after 2008 – not to make a structural adjustment to the economic wellbeing of the population itself, rather than only the stock exchange.

In continental Europe the announcements for social security, for subsidised salaries, were out before the UK had even published a definitive isolation or testing regime. The masses faced something of a dilemma, too, in that the foremost projection of power the people had ever truly had, to the extent that it had any at all, was in a crowd, and a crowd wasn’t much good in a pandemic. As the weeks went on, self-distancing alone would spare members of the government being torn limb from limb.

The ecosystem of modern news, principally social media, meanwhile maintained in its relentlessness an ability to erase memory. The instantaneous strike of packaged information, and the certainty it would be replaced shortly by a new one, brought with it a tendency to delete the past as a result of the constant future arriving and arriving and arriving. With coronavirus, we were going to have to extend our memories a little, and remember what had caused the crisis to spread, how our politicians had responded, which states and companies had left their citizens and their staff high and dry, which had conducted themselves honourably.

As the US left sanctions on an Iranian economy unable even to buy testing kits for the virus, and meanwhile attempted to poach the intellectual property of a German company working on a vaccine, we also had to remember which countries had presented as a friend or as a foe to the preservation of both human life and the raw humanity that made that life sacred in the first place. People – principally the poorest – would suffer, people would indeed, sadly, die, and the survivors would have to take a bloodless revenge, not out of spite, but to ensure that the legacy of the dead was honoured, and that there could be no such repeat.

For a long time I had wondered what would make the change. I always held to the logic that the welfare state had come about after World War II, and it had come about specifically because of the suffering of the millions who had died and bled and sweated for a country they would no more be willing to give up to others. In an era that was mostly spared, at least in the West, the suffering of those wars that we now outsourced, I had wondered what suffering would happen that could make people find in themselves the power to think and act like society was truly theirs.

Sometimes I had hoped that perhaps history could be defied, that people could eventually demand substantial improvement without the suffering before it. In as much as the fact that suffering would surely come, coronavirus proved wrong that sanguine hypothesis. In doing so, and in shattering the complacency, it also defied the wish and sine qua non of neoliberalism: nothing ever changes, nothing ever needs to change, because all costs can be externalised. Enough people would die that, even if politicians took a few days to remember that the market served people and not people the market, the hypnosis would be broken, at last.

Was there room for optimism? Philosophically-speaking at least, it seemed that there must have been. There was, after all, an ocean of pessimism. And, like any emotion or state of mind, pessimism can only exist by the presence of its opposite. The challenge was to find the silver lining in the emotional state of mind that had been ushered in.

Across the last decade, accelerating as the financial crisis and austerity bit, words like ‘spirit’ had been cheapened by saccharine notions of neoliberal happiness, the wellness-industrial complex, and also cheap patriotism. In its abundance and inauthenticity, the real stuff had fallen away.

We were about to be reminded that the human spirit was, in essence, the ability to imagine a piece of humanity, of human concerns, that exists in the breast of another man or woman, and to feel its right to exist as keenly as your own. For whatever reason – the death of ideological conflict with the Cold War, the fiscal stimulus, anaemic growth and economic voodoo of the post-2008 crash – humans had for some time been sleepwalking in a land without real structure, out of which had fallen away the conditions for a human spirit.

Disconnected from a true debate of the affairs and ideas that governed humans in the twenty-first century, so too had people become disconnected from humans altogether. With this loss of spirit, invisible but all-powerful, so too had a sense of shame gone missing in world leaders. With that there also departed the sense of accountability that authoritarians no longer perceived. There came the cynicism with which publics met the failures of those who had been charged as their servants. All of it had compounded into a system that was ungovernable by all but a financial logic, and in which human concern had accordingly found itself impotent. Without spirit, humans had turned meek in the ability to express rights and ideas, doubly susceptible to the weakness beneath the baton strike of the police that could be relied upon to uphold the law.

In the isolation and quarantining the virus forced, there was that same potential – the combination of being physically apart while emotionally connected – on which spirit rested. The return of this spirit was necessary for the essence of life also to return, and perhaps the essence of life only crystallised in all its clarity when enough life was abandoned, lost, by those to whom power had fraudulently been allowed to gravitate. An injury and outrage great enough to break open a failed structural settlement would be the result, and in the breast of it, there might at least be space for the return of a humanity that would take on the necessary proportions needed to change not just the mood music of politics, but its plot. This power would not willingly make enemies, it would be large-hearted enough to invite one and all to join and uphold it, but it would have to be rolled out, whether by the current, crony power-holders – finally shamed by what they had presided over – or by those finally replacing them.

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