We are in the midst of a fast moving and deadly infectious disease pandemic. However, COVID-19 has come a time when society was already facing multiple epidemics in mental health, chronic disease and other infectious diseases – the result of decades of inaction and trade offs made against protecting public health.
COVID-19 has thrown into stark relief the glaring features of our social and economic system. Where social life is rife with inequalities, poverty, racism and colonisation. Where the economic life of ordinary people is defined by precariousness, hazardous working conditions, low pay, lack of fair access to housing, food and care services.
The crisis has also shown our collective capacity to solve these issues for the common good. The unified recognition of the government’s role in being the central institution that has the mandate and capability to protect public health during this crisis, is something we as health workers have been fighting to get recognised for as long as we can remember.
Almost instantaneously, decades of austerity, financialisation of ordinary life, marketisation and privatisation of common goods and public services, were cast aside. Beds were requisitioned from private hospitals. Protectionist policies were deployed rapidly to protect people’s work and incomes, measures were taken to extend sick pay, benefit sanctions were lifted, policies in short that worked to ‘freeze’ the economy and people’s socioeconomic status.
These actions have done little to address the fault lines which already divide our society. Even before the crisis the poorest households in the UK spent half their income on essential goods such as housing, utilities, food, fuel and transport. Many families do not have adequate savings to cover a fall in their incomes and are heading towards indebtedness. Essential workers are amongst the lowest paid and the workforce is over represented by women of colour, many of who are now risking their lives everyday to protect us.
The government’s failure to act with a preventative stance is reflected in the record breaking number of people applying to claim universal credit, a system designed on means testing and sanctions. Failing to guarantee minimum incomes for all. It’s lack of action in dropping NHS charging for migrants and hostile environment policies, as has been done in Ireland. The failure to properly implement the end of evictions. Failure to address child poverty and child care. Failing to act to address growing food insecurity. Lack of action in ending harmful trade sanctions and debt bondage of other nations. Failing to provide transparency in the deal to use private hospital beds. And also the lack of the very basic supplies of PPE and medical equipment.
In sum, the action so far has been focused on curing the symptoms of both the pandemic and the economic crisis. But with a frayed social fabric that has compromised the ability of people and society to protect themselves, we are only delaying an inevitable crisis at a scale that will be unprecedented.
Unless we work to prevent it.
In this light our demands are more important than ever, they capture the scope of changes that have to be made to protect public health. We need to ensure homes are secure, that bills, debt and rent don’t trap people into poverty, that access to care is a right for all and that we end trade sanctions and provide immediate debt relief to help our fellow health workers in the global south.
The pandemic has catalysed an economic crisis. Increasing the speed and spread of poverty, inequality and hardship which was already a feature of many communities and countries.
As health workers we now need to work with allies who are calling for social and economic justice and international solidarity. We must also recognise that every essential worker is a health and care worker and we are all essential parts of protecting public health.
We now need to organise and call for prevention if we are to have a socially just response. The government has shown it has the capacity and mandate to protect everyone’s well being. As health workers we need to come together collectively to make sure that they are held accountable and we push for action to mend our social fabric.