Caring, Capitalism and Corona
A few themes have emerged throughout the Coronavirus crisis and one trope I see repeated everywhere is that the pandemic has taught us what’s really important in life and in society. For what it’s worth, I agree, and I think many of us have re-evaluated our priorities somewhat, but unfortunately some of the people who haven't are actually running the show, ie. they work in central government.
I’ve watched and waited for quite a while before making any criticism of how ‘we’ (as a Nation, I mean) have handled this crisis because it is so unprecedented. I think I can probably forgive a lack of forward planning for a potential global pandemic; it's the governmental equivalent of never getting around to cleaning out that messy drawer in the spare room. Sure, you should probably do it, and you might even find something useful, but realistically when it is ever going to be a priority alongside the stuff that actually keeps day-to-day life ticking over?
But as this crisis unfolds it’s laying bare how the priorities of this government – and the one before it, and the one before that – have undermined the public services we all rely on, in good times and bad. When it became clear the Coronavirus had entered the UK and was spreading like wildfire, it brought a few things to a head that up to that point had been treated with the same contempt as that metaphorical ‘messy drawer’. As we were all advised to stay at home, charities, local hubs and volunteers who regularly support the homeless on our streets pointed out to the government that an embarrassingly large number of our citizens didn’t have homes to go to. And at a stroke an issue that had apparently been impossible to solve weeks before was deemed an urgent priority.
As it became clear that the staff of the chronically underfunded NHS were literally holding our lives in their hands, a surge of appreciation swept the nation culminating in rainbow pictures in our windows and a new Thursday evening tradition: clapping our carers. Clapping is fine; but real change would be better. In the absence of sufficient funding and the tragedy that is a lack of PPE for the people on the frontline of this pandemic, what NHS workers surely need more than applause or even an hour in a supermarket just for them (don’t say we never do anything for you!) is the stuff that many of us take for granted. The equipment to do their jobs safely. (The government missed three opportunities to get a PPE deal for the NHS and one of the reasons given was a ‘missed email’.) A reasonable pay structure with extra money for unsociable hours and overtime. The ability to park at their workplace for free, or at the very least subsidised rates, so a huge chunk of their salary doesn’t go straight into the pockets of whoever runs hospital car parks. A room where they can have a proper break and drink a free cup of tea or coffee.
It's been fascinating to see the change to celebrity culture through this crisis. Celebrities have rightly fallen off the map entirely, replaced in the mainstream media narrative by the ‘heroes’ and ‘angels’ of the NHS. But this replacement of one hero for another is equally dangerous. Doctors, nurses, NHS managers and administrators and cleaners, not to mention the supermarket staff, delivery drivers and council workers who are keeping this show on the road while most of us remain inside, are ordinary people, doing the jobs they did before, under significantly altered, more stressful, more difficult circumstances. They don’t particularly need idolatry. And I think the sudden reversal in their public image says more about the human need to look up to someone, to worship, and dare I say it, to virtue signal our appreciation, than it does about our actual values.
Newsflash: the NHS has always been there for us, and if we never appreciated it before, that’s on us. We have healthcare available, free at the point of delivery, no matter what’s wrong with us, what accident befell us, or how we may have contributed to our own health issues through less-than-optimum lifestyle choices. Aren’t we lucky?
In this Capitalist society, carers have never been so highly valued. I’m sure that alongside those who work in the NHS, those who spend a high proportion of their time caring for others as part of every life will be observing this ruefully. Stay at home parents. Those who clean, shop for and care for vulnerable people to enable them to remain in their homes, either for low pay or none, not just now but all the time. The government has a huge helping hand from the goodwill of ordinary people at the best of times; caring for their own families unpaid, running Foodbanks to fill the gaps left by austerity, feeding the homeless that councils couldn’t or wouldn’t house.
When Colonel Tom raised £32 million for the NHS by walking 100 laps of his garden as he approached his 100th birthday I, like many others, watched in admiration at his achievement. He is a truly beautiful soul who did what he could to help and achieved something staggering that is making a vital difference to people at a terribly difficult time. But I can’t help but be cynical at the media response to our new ‘national hero’.
We're in a time of crisis right now, but the NHS is not a charity and it absolutely must not acquire the public image of one. It needs to be properly funded by the state, not the efforts of well-wishers. As I write, 250,000 UK families are currently grieving those lost to Covid-19. If there are any lessons that need to be learnt from their collective pain then let it be that. The NHS needs better state funding. Not just now, because we're in crisis; it always did. It always will. This needs to transcend political infighting and just become a constant. Governments come and go but the NHS has been there for us since 1948. Next time you vote, remember the time of Corona.