The Coronavirus has Shaken Us to the Core

Days ago, a hectic week of community work – running on empty, with an autopilot approach – came to an end as we began to realise we had symptoms we’d been warned to watch out for as the coronavirus dominated news reports alongside social media dialogue tantamount to white noise until the realisation hits that you have a responsibility to be aware and take action. Frantically taking buses, trams and trains, wrapping up workshops where they insist on shaking your hands to show gratitude, high-fiving youngsters at local sports sessions in the park, or just embracing your teammates at AFC Unity, all go from being gestures you take for granted to suddenly things you have to reconsider on reflection. We’re both generally physically healthy people, but given the above it was in hindsight inevitable we’d be susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. It is that health, though, that makes us so lucky, when we have friends and family who are immunocompromised – and hence our week of isolation becomes so gravely important. We all have a collective responsibility.

What’s been concerning for us as we embark upon our isolation is our self-employed status. A lot of our community work is based on actual contact-time in project delivery – if we don’t show up, we don’t get paid.

A few years ago, we had a dilapidated unit in the pre-regenerated Kelham Island area – rented at comparatively high cost from Sheffield City Council and/or Kier (because we’re the absolute worst at being hard-nosed negotiating capitalists) – where at the time we thought much of our community work would be based from, only to soon follow the demand further out of the city, into disadvantaged areas, leaving the workspace superfluous to requirements, and ourselves needing another loan to help cover the costs for, seeing as it wasn’t being utilised as an asset. The cramped city centre flat we personally initially rented to live near to that workplace is something we committed to long-term, renewing when we never even had time to effectively seek alternatives, and now stuck with for most of this year. This rent, these bills, and our debt repayments, all continue – even if our minuscule income stops. And we are just one example.

Over the last few days we’ve seen so many stories of freelancers like us – and people without sick pay – facing the prospect of being legally required to honour payments to various companies and organisations, even while the income stream is drying up. You’ll no doubt hear many more in the days, weeks, and months to come, as the bill comes due on a flawed system.

Via our online presence, we have of course long argued for the implementation of an unconditional basic income – alongside measures such as rent controls, and the protection of key services – not least because the advancement of technology and automation has meant a lot of dangerous, dirty, or just downright depressing jobs face the prospect of being increasingly replaced by robotics. Explaining this to our parents’ generation, for example, has been a challenge: those who toiled for years in factories on the premise that we “live to work” rather than “work to live” are at best surprised, and at worst unnerved or even offended by the revelation that their job needn’t be done by a human, that a robot can carry out the tasks, or that perhaps their job didn’t have to exist at all (but for, perhaps, generating creative wants for a consumerist society while their labour time was exploited to increase profits for shareholders).

This was always seen as human progress – and don’t take our word for it. Philosopher John Stuart Mill opposed the “gospel of work” and instead proposed a “gospel of leisure” since he envisioned a near future where “There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress…as much room for improving the Art of Living” as technology would be embraced to curb the workweek as far as possible. American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin believed that eventually four hours of work a day would be sufficient to keep everything ticking over. Economist John Maynard Keynes declared that, by 2030, one of humanity’s biggest challenges would be figuring out how to utilise all the spare time they’ll have (definitely our idea of a preferred problem).

Keynes claimed that unless politicians make “disastrous mistakes” (such as implementing austerity during an economic crisis), by 2030 the Western standard of living will have multiplied to at least four times that of 1930, with a fifteen hour working week the standard.

Of course, those promoting the concept of even a 32-hour working week by 2030 – still more than twice that suggested by Keynes – were ridiculed by much of the billionaire press in the run-up to the recent UK general election. The “disastrous mistakes” Keynes warned about were made by neoliberal politicians in this country following the 2008 economic crisis – after all, they raised £1.5 trillion to rescue the banks, using it as a reason to rip apart public services for ordinary people. Disastrous, yes. But were they mistakes…or deliberate?

We both grew up in different parts of South Yorkshire – a subregion battered by the ideological attacks on unionised industries such as steelworks and coalmines, leaving millions jobless practically overnight, with no alternative put in place. Growing up, we were led to believe by corporate media that this shift to the City of London’s deregulated financial sector was part of “trickle-down” economics – and yet, as millions like us entered work, we found it plain to see that it never trickled down from the top, only stayed at the top: since 1980, the share of income earned by the top 1% in the UK has generally been rising, between 1984 and 2013 the top 0.1% had their share of total wealth double, and today 6 people control as much wealth at the poorest 13,000,000 of us. So “austerity” has been forced on the poor, with communities decimated, while the filthy rich have hoarded and even increased their wealth. It’s “trickle-up” economics, thanks in part to the removal of unionised jobs and workers rights. It’s a war waged on the poor by the rich.

In our guerrilla documentary Return to Doncatraz (focusing on, yes, Doncaster), we explored the roots of much right-wing political ideology. Herbert Spencer became famous for perverting Charles Darwin’s “natural selection” in the animal kingdom and actually applying it to human society – an abomination known as Social Darwinism, where industrial revolution workplaces could be left unregulated and the sick or disabled were to be left to die, in accordance with attempts to supposedly strengthen the human race. Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton, launched a new “science” called eugenics, aimed at utilising the theory of Social Darwinism to rid humanity of its “undesirables.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because, yes, Adolf Hitler put all of this into full effect with his quest for a “pure” Aryan German race, exterminating those that the Nazis deemed “biologically inferior” through the mass genocide of the Holocaust in the Second World War. The Milgram Experiment later shed light on how humanity could have experienced such an atrocity: people accepting hierarchical authority figures and “just following orders.” A lesson we should have learnt from.

The bad press that Social Darwinism received in the aftermath of the Holocaust was inevitable, but in the United States and, to a great extent, the United Kingdom, the principle of “survival of the fittest” has still indeed endured. The billionaire press perpetuate stories that those seeking asylum aren’t fleeing climate catastrophe or disaster zones caused by capitalism, but instead simply wanting a free ride; that homeless people haven’t had bad luck compromised of sanctions, debt, domestic violence, addictions, or health issues, but instead simply choose to live on the street in increasing numbers; that disabled people aren’t being restricted from work or subjected to punitive assessments, but instead conning the system; that the unemployed aren’t suffering from a lack of decent free education or job opportunities, they’re just lazy “scroungers.” The idea that it isn’t social conditions and circumstances that change people’s lives but instead an innate disposition has been used for all of these and more. As we suggested in our film, Social Darwinism is the driving force behind the current Conservative government.

If there were any doubts left of this, they were probably gone by the time it emerged that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings had appointed eugenicist Andrew Sabisky, who followed up Johnson’s references to gay men as “tank-topped bum-boys”, Muslim women in veils as “letterboxes,” and black people as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” by claiming black people were mentally inferior and calling for compulsory contraception to keep poor people from multiplying. When some journalists asked a Boris Johnson spokesperson whether the Prime Minister would condone or condemn Sabisky’s sickening sentiments, the response was simply: “The Prime Minister’s views are well publicised and well documented.” Indeed they are. Say no more.

So when Boris Johnson appoints Benita Mehra as a key figure in the Grenfell Inquiry when she received a £71,000 grant from the company that made the cladding for the tower that burned in the first place, or takes what feels like an eternity to visit the poor flood-hit towns of the country, keep that in mind – and it applies to the coronavirus.

Boris Johnson’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance told BBC Radio 4 that their aim “is to try and reduce the peak (of the infections), broaden the peak, not suppress it completely…to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease.”  “The key phrase we all need to understand is herd immunity,” explained ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, “which is what happens to a group of people or animals when they develop sufficient antibodies to be resistant to a disease.”

This “herd” (in this scenario humans, in case we’ve forgotten) would likely only build up an immunity once 90% or more have an immune defence against a disease. The only way to obtain antibodies, with a vaccine months away, is to become infected with the virus and survive it.

Even with the mortality rate of 1%, this could mean over half a million deaths in Britain.

Gavin Yamey, director of the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at Duke University, reacted:

Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said:

Meanwhile, World Health Organisation spokesperson Dr Margaret Harris stated, “We don’t know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn’t been in our population for long enough for us to know what it does in immunological terms…Every virus functions differently in your body and stimulates a different immunological profile. We can talk theories, but at the moment we are really facing a situation where we have got to look at action.”

While some countries have taken an approach of restricting large entertainment or sports events, closed schools or colleges, or even total lockdown, there has also been a rising culture of social distancing – not everyone in the U.K. is going to wait for those hierarchical authority figures to tell us when to switch things up and change our habits. We don’t have to be Boris Johnson’s people. We can stand in solidarity with those in Sicily, or in Madrid. We ourselves can take the decision to do things differently, rather than waiting for the powers that be. They should respond to us, not the other way around.

Social isolation, as both of us are experiencing together right now, is a start – but how is this going to be done by others even more desperate for a paycheque and without sick pay, or homeless people literally lying in our streets? Universal basic income was also on the menu in the general election, and lost out to Brexit. Remember, we gave £1.5tn to the banks.

Meanwhile, a U.S. government that supposedly can’t possibly fund free education or free healthcare suddenly found $1.5tn to pump into the financial sector.

This is shocking our culture to the core. It is exploding the myths of capitalism that have been passed on for scores of years: that there’s not enough money to help people; that we all have to keep scrapping for the crumbs; that Alarm Clock Britain is a must; that There Is No Alternative.

It was all lies.

Many of the jobs out there are bullshit. Everyone has a right to a dignified life. There’s plenty of money, and whether to raise it or not, and what it can be spent on, is an entirely ideological choice. There are enough resources on earth for everyone to be housed, warm, and fed, with access to key utilities. We don’t have to keep going on as we are, toiling away to get Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates bigger yachts, or to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. We can live with nature, alongside it, in harmony. We can have vibrant, diverse, thriving communities, sustainably.

Hope can be found in Dutch laboratories and Chinese legal battles. But we can take positive action, now.

Though even beyond this pandemic, the illusion has been shattered and we’ve seen what the rich and powerful will do in order to retain the status quo. We’ve seen it doesn’t have to be that way.

Nothing can ever be the same again.

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