Lockdown showed us the cracks that separate a privileged few from the majority. As it eases, we will see those widen
As the beginning of the end of lockdown comes into view in England, a new fear should be taking shape. We entered the pandemic a grossly unequal society; we will leave it with those inequalities sharpened and multiplied.
This is a pandemic of two halves. If in the first we began to see the fault lines that separated us, in the second those cracks will gape open. The first quake began to shake the political ground last week – as a government that has dithered its way to the second highest death rate in the world heaped scorn on the public it failed to protect, in order to save one of its own. What started out as a firm but restrained refusal to admit any wrongdoing on the part of Dominic Cummings has descended into menace and mockery. Boris Johnson is aggressive and ratty during the daily briefings. Ministers such as Matt Hancock and Michael Gove laugh and scoff in interviews. It’s time to move on, we are told.
If there was any doubt about the true nature of this government, it has now been erased: the country is run by a small, tight-knit group of arrogant and talentless entitleds. Apart from riding the public to office, they have no interest in our safety – or our respect. We must do our duty and submit, because these are the new pandemic rules, stripped back to an essence that in normal times would be more carefully obscured. In short: know your place.
Any illusions that we were ever protected from the rank contempt of our rulers by the logic of democracy – because the government embodies the will of the people who elected it – are now gone. Their only concern was for the will that brought them to power. And now, many more protections that we imagined were still in place – from unemployment, from homelessness, from risks to our health in the workplace – will crumble into dust, as our society splits even more decisively into a small group of winners and a large mass of losers.
Divisions are becoming more exposed each week. Already the labour force has become divided between those who can work from home and those who must go out and be on the frontline of the government’s experiment in easing the lockdown; between those who can continue to cocoon and those who cannot afford to, because they are paid for piecework for each physical task – a clean house, a day on a construction site, a hot meal delivered to your door.
There are workers who have formal contracts that treat their labour as a service performed by a human being who has the right to notice, severance pay and protection from abuse. And there are those who have no protection from the whims of their bosses to dictate their treatment and fate. As the predicted recession bites and unemployment rises, the power that employers have over zero-hours workers grateful to have any income will produce more and more abuses, especially for undocumented workers.
Those workers are themselves part of a larger group of migrants whose legal and formal status will not fortify them against the aftershocks of the pandemic. Accustomed to overpaying for their visas, residence permits and access to the NHS, they have contributed taxes and fees over the years that still do not afford them any access to public funds. For them, there is no safety net.
But there are still many who are even less fortunate than able-bodied workers eking out a precarious living: those for whom there is no clear end of lockdown in sight. The suspension of our lives will not end as suddenly and decisively as it began. We will be released back into our lives in batches. The healthy, the young, the able-bodied and those privileged enough to have help and care will be first. But there is another nation of shielders for whom there is still no long-term clarity. Advice that they can go outside came suddenly and with no explanation of the risk profile or preparation for this next phase. However their vulnerability was cushioned during the universal phase of lockdown, either through the kindness of friends and family providing food and care, or through a furlough scheme that has staved off financial pain, these means will soon end. Non-shielding helpers will return to their own lives and jobs, and the furlough scheme will taper off.
With its end, the most dramatic inequality of all will kick in, as the furloughed find that they have no jobs to return to and no reprieve from their financial obligations. The unemployment contagion effect is already working its way through the economy. The owner of a small family-run estate agent told me last week that he spends the majority of his time since returning to work negotiating between landlords and tenants who have defaulted on their rent, trying to stave off evictions, and winding down tenancies only when people have found somewhere to go. When I asked him how much worse it’s going to get after the end of the furlough scheme, he said, “I get white hair just thinking about it.”
The pandemic quickly thrived in society’s cracks, claiming lives and livelihoods according to race, access to healthcare, work risk profile and economic status. Next it will open up even larger fissures. Considering the collective trauma that we have gone through, we can be allowed a moment of relief as a “return to normal” begins to take shape. But it may be brief: now the task will be to scrutinise the unforgiving new landscape of sharpened inequalities, and – instead of turning on each other – do whatever we can to soften them.