Coronavirus changes everything

The world has changed in a way that would have appeared unimaginable even a few weeks ago. I expected in this month’s column to be talking about how to react to Keir Starmer as Labour leader. I would have said that Anneliese Dodds should be made Shadow Chancellor and that he will need defending from the right flank of his coalition of support. I still think both of these things are true, but they seem rather irrelevant just now. Events have intervened.

This crisis will alter the political landscape in a way that we cannot yet fully imagine. At this early stage, it seems reasonable to expect that its long term impact on Western politics is likely to easily dwarf that of the 2008 crash or the 9/11 attacks. Normal life in the UK is set to be disrupted on a scale unseen since the Second World War, and it is far from clear that national or international structures are in any shape to effectively rise to the occasion and coordinate a humane, effective response.

We can only speculate about the long term psychological effects that the potential cocktail of isolation, fear and grief will have on the population. It seems clear, however, that we are living through the beginnings of extraordinary times.

What needs to happen?

Jonathan Ashworth, whose approach to the crisis so far has been consistently excellent, is absolutely correct to call on the government for more transparency with regards to their strategy for dealing with the virus. The government’s failure of communication thus far has been shambolic, and continuing in this way could be disastrous. The public need to know why decisions are being made, and they need to receive this information directly from the government, rather than through selective press releases and anonymous briefings to favoured journalists. Johnson’s government should commit to daily press conferences as a matter of urgency. 

Additionally, the crisis calls for urgent action, both to ease the financial burden on a population facing economic catastrophe, and to ensure that a health service about to be tested as seldom before is operating at full capacity. In this context, it is also worth noting the ways in which inequality intersects with vulnerability to the consequences. It is much easier for a white collar worker to work from home than a blue collar one (and this is doubly true for the casualised labour force.) It’s much easier for somebody with substantial disposable income to stockpile. It’s much harder to self-isolate in smaller shared living spaces. With all of these considerations in mind, I recently tweeted the following suggestions:

1. An Emergency Universal Basic Income

Immediate financial relief needs to be provided across society. The realities of the pandemic mean an unprecedented disruption to work patterns and this needs to be reflected by any policy solution  – universal basic income allows for labour to be decommodified, provides a baseline of financial support for everybody and additionally relieves pressure on freelancers and the self-employed. The government must ensure that every citizen has adequate resources, and this measure would provide a fast, efficient way of doing just that for the duration of the crisis. The Labour MP Tracey Brabin has called for a temporary Universal Basic Income to be implemented.

2. Increase and extend Sick Pay

It needs to be financially plausible for everybody to stay at home and stop working when necessary. Currently, the UK has one of the lowest rates of sick pay across Europe. Our current entitlements additionally don’t cover the self-employed. This situation is farcical in normal times, and dangerously so under current circumstances. Adequate sick pay is a public health issue. It has been pleasing to see many calls for this measure from across the Labour Party.

3. Moratorium on rent, mortgages and utility payments

It is vital that people do not struggle to meet these basic needs. While it’s good to see  Jeremy Corbyn call for rent deferrals and mortgage holidays, this alone simply pushes the problem back a few months. We need to reduce the financial burden on citizens in the long term in order to disincentivise socially risky behaviours.

4. Requisition private hospital beds

In the current circumstances, the health system must be operating at its maximum possible capacity. GMB’s call for the requisitioning of hospital beds rent free should be supported in its entirety.

Mutual Aid Groups

It is all of our responsibility during these times to look out for one another. If you are in the UK, I recommend looking at Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, who are helping to coordinate mutual aid efforts across the country.

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