We owe our lives to COVID-19 key workers – how should we pay them back?

A collection of essays looks ahead to the policies that could repay that debt – but finds precious little light in the darkness.

Alison Goldsworthy
12 May 2020, 10.10am

In times of darkness, we look for the light. That was why sales of Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’ spiked after Donald Trump's election. Yet Trump’s approval ratings are still to tumble: whatever we might wish, sometimes the darkness persists.

Our Other National Debt’ is a collection of essays that tries to see beyond our present darkness. In it, some of the UK’s leading campaigners and thinkers about health education, poverty and the interests of migrants and minorities propose the next steps the country’s policymakers could take, each trying to answer the question, how do we repay those to whom we owe the most?

The responses, and the faith the authors have in their chance of success, ranged from bleak to no more than nearly optimistic. I fear that those who foresee the bleakest outcomes may be right.

Take Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a think tank focussed on questions of cultural identity, integration, migration and economic opportunity. He considers the ‘them and us’ attitudes built into our human psyche. Unafraid to challenge progressives about the potential for their work to backfire, he pulls out the widely shared ‘You Clap For Me Now’ video as an example. This shows key workers – immigrants and from black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups – reading a poem that reminds viewers of the hatred they have experienced in contrast to the gratitude and respect that motivates Thursday evening applause.

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Whatever the brilliant intentions of those behind the video, which Katwala goes to pains to point out, his critique feels valid: jabbing at people’s perceived hypocrisy is unlikely to heal divides. Katwala also highlights how BAME people are being hit hard by COVID-19 because they do jobs and live in conditions that place them more at risk.

History likewise tells us that a moment portrayed as one of national unity can have dark undertones. This is shown in an essay by Roger Harding, the chief executive of Reclaim, a charity that aims to empower young working-class people. He points out that in the aftermath of the second world war, anti-Semitic attacks increased, and 42% of British people wanted to emigrate. If we are to learn from them we must remember some of the less heroic parts of our past.

If the frontline NHS worker is our new national hero, journalist Sonia Sodha is right to highlight that our new national debt is owed to many others besides. The scandalous lack of support for many in care homes has aroused considerable ire, but Sodha also points out that many roles we traditionally thought of as belonging to the NHS are no longer so. They have been subcontracted to private companies, and without the private-sector delivery drivers and security teams our health service would cease to function. Reframing how we think about these workers is entirely right.

That leads to one of the challenges that threads through the solutions posed in the report: most of their suggestions will cost money. Kitty Ussher, who is the chief economic advisor at the think tank Demos and was formerly economic secretary to the Treasury, suggests that the better-off workers who have been able to work from home should be plucked: she floats the idea of abolishing the tax-free personal allowance on savings income. It would be a bold move for a government to put the burden on the shoulders of those who generally hold the most political power, but she is right to propose it.

The question is, will the government seize the present opportunity, when the better-off are most likely to remember that they have not been as badly hit as others. Ussher dwells on the agreement from across the political spectrum that we need to spend money to save the economy – a marked contrast to the divisions in the aftermath of the far less deep 2008 crash. If we are looking for a political glimmer of light in the dark, this may be it.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, highlights the devastating role disinformation can play in deepening divisions. He echoes Ussher’s calls to look for money from those who remain cash-rich, advancing the persuasive case for a digital services tax. Looking at the overflowing balances of some Silicon Valley behemoths, governments should coordinate to make sure companies pay their fair share. But as George Graham of Save the Children points out in his essay, the international response from the EU to the G20 has so far been woeful.

The bleak economic picture Ussher paints has only got worse since the pamphlets were published last week. Moreover, we would do well to remember that the decision to deplete stores of personal protective equipment, which saved money at the time, is likely to push up the cost of doing business in future – maintaining larger inventory stocks costs money. We won’t just have to pay to service our additional borrowing but also to make sure these mistakes are not made again.

Dan Corry, CEO of NPC, a think tank and consultancy for charities, talks about the role of the voluntary sector and how it will be critical in the months ahead. This will go beyond providing services to giving opportunities for those who want to get involved. With over one million people offering to help, many potential volunteers have been sat at home, wanting to make a contribution but with no route to do so.

The government should see the voluntary sector as critical to unifying the country. tDespite the sterling efforts of the likes of NCVO, the English coordinating body, it has been slow to offer support and this does not augur well. If government and volunteering organisations can make use of these deepened relationships with government officials and civil servants then the volunteer’s moment truly will have arrived.

While many of the authors try to reach more upbeat conclusions, the scale of the challenge becomes ever more apparent, often in its unintended consequences. Kirsty McNeill of Save the Children explains how children will be affected in different, often chilling, ways. If furloughed workers are at home with caring responsibilities – and they are far more likely to be women – then they will be excluded from conversations about how companies survive. If you aren’t in the room where it happens, your voice is weaker. It’s a theme touched on by other writers, who highlight the lopsided representation of our legislatures, where disabled people, BAME people, women and those from working-class backgrounds are often under-represented. Politicians and government will need to be purposeful to include them: quick decisions do not often allow for that.

It is this relative lack of political power which chimes out from many of these essays. It isn’t just that the situation is at the bleaker end of the spectrum they paint; those to whom the biggest debt is owed have the least access to the levers of power. There is a risk that they will also be left to bear the brunt of the looming recession. There is a window of opportunity for the government to start some big bold discussions, such as those around restructuring social care that floundered under Gordon Brown and cost Theresa May an electoral majority. Sodha proposes that the government should very quickly commission a cross-party group to bring forward suggestions, and the pamphlet gives the impression that social care is not the only area deserving of such an initiative.

What ‘Our Other National Debt’ suggests is that we will find it is those who are closest to political power, those who have the loudest voices, those who already have a seat, who will be able to make the repayment of the debt work for them. This pamphlet is a welcome and much-needed start to a new chapter, one that has a very bleak beginning indeed. There may be light in the dark. But it is the darkness that dominates.

'You Clap For Me Now' video courtesy of Sachini Imbuldeniya. Director: Darren Smith; producer: Sachini Imbuldeniya; video editor: Ruben Alvarado

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