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The UK Government’s Current Response to Coronavirus Has Been Classist, Ableist, and Elitist

by in World on 17th March, 2020

Officially declared a pandemic on 11th March 2020 by the World Health Organisation, as of today, the Coronavirus has claimed the lives of approximately 5,500 people, with 144,000 infected and 6,000 currently in critical condition. These numbers are set to rise with UK Prime minister Boris Johnson claiming that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’. While the government’s proposed policies are changing day by day, following ongoing criticism and an influx of new information, there remains significant uncertainty of the merits and demerits of what the government are proposing, since the country is currently choosing to shun advice from the WHO (World Health Organisation) and the collective status quo. However, what cannot go ignored is the sheer classism, ableism, and elitism of the government’s current approach, and the real and immediate impact of these policies on our society’s most vulnerable.

With borders rapidly closing across the globe, and visa restrictions mounting to those having visited hard-hit places such as China, Iran and Italy (and increasingly everywhere), the majority of governments have been quick to deal with the developing situation, including imposing strict quarantine measures, travel restrictions, prosecuting patients who breach self-isolation procedure, and issuing official advice. Across the globe but initially excluding the US and UK, the approach has been one of the prompt responses, transparency, and continual updates on developments of the virus. Yet on the 12th March, Professor John Ashton, former regional director of public health for North-West England, deemed the UK’s shockingly slow response to the virus as ‘pathetic’. He criticised prime minister Boris Johnson, calling him ‘superficial’ and argued that ministers were ‘behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket’. Professor Ashton’s concerns have come at a time when the UK has illustrated a devastatingly sluggish reaction to the virus, lagging weeks behind other countries. Ashton argued that Johnson should have ‘convened Cobra himself’ and had discussions with the UK’s chief medical officer to determine the best way to move forward.

Britain’s Response

Following the meeting, Johnson announced that the UK has gone from the ‘contain’ phase, to ‘delay’ the virus phase and that many people were due to lose loved ones. The official advice for the elderly, critically needed, as for whom the virus will be fatal, is to ‘avoid going on cruises’ with more advice on isolation in the pipeline. This near-useless advice is only applicable to the wealthy and falls breathtakingly short of actually protecting this country’s at-risk demographic. Additionally, very limited advice has been given to other at-risk demographics such as the disabled. With international and expert pressure mounting on the government, the situation seems to be sluggishly changing, but at the time of writing, very little is being done to protect these vulnerable people, and there is a chronic lack of advice on the severity fo this virus and how to protect themselves.

General advice to the population falls short and is confused due to rapid changes, currently only including washing your hands for 20 seconds, staying away from the elderly if you fear you have symptoms, and staying at least 2 meters away from others in your house, using a separate bathroom if you think you have contracted the virus. However, it is policy, and the decision not to close schools that has perhaps outraged the most, especially given that it was said gatherings of 500+ were to be banned. This announcement was met with a wealth of scepticism, with experts and headteachers conveying a deep lack of confidence in the prime minister’s decision. Many responded by pointing out that most schools, especially in the state sector, have over 500 students in one space every single day, with 30 in one classroom – a warm, confined space where the virus is likely to thrive, making children clear vectors.

The panic buying which we have seen over the past week is also indicative of the lack of confidence in the government’s current strategy, and will see those most vulnerable being left worse off. Those who cannot afford to stockpile will be left hunting for basic necessities as those who can afford to, clear the shelves of virtually all products. The government has done nothing to collaborate with supermarkets and ensure that supplies are equally distributed, and supermarkets have taken matters into their own hands – newly imposing hours when only the elderly and vulnerable can shop. When it comes to online deliveries, in many cases there are no more slots available for the next three weeks. Even if there were, the poorest of our society can’t afford to bulk buy, living paycheck to paycheck.

The most disheartening part of all this is that stockpiling is quite literally unnecessary. No one will at any point, need over 10 packs of toilet roll to get them through a 7-14 day period of isolation. Last but not least the panic buying means food banks and homeless shelters are facing a new crisis of no donations. Sufra Food Bank in North West London has stated,

“Families that visit food banks simply can’t afford to hoard food in the way that others have been doing in the past few days…Our guests (service users) have more vulnerabilities than the average population. Many of them are refugees or asylum seekers with links to Iran, Italy and other countries which have experienced high risk of infection.”

Will people literally starve because the government is too slow to act?

Instead, it is imperative there are clear guidelines to the population, and arrangements made for access to food, medicine, healthcare, and childcare. There needs to be clarity for people with zero-hour contracts, those being forced to continue working and potentially contracting the virus whilst living with those more at risk, the elderly who live alone, those with dependents, those with chronic illnesses, those in overcrowded housing who do not have more than one bathroom to use, those who do not have a drawing-room in their homes to retire to, those who are homeless, those working in the public sector such as education and health care, those people who need to make rent and cannot afford to get sick, those reliant on benefits, those who use food banks, those who fundamentally make up the British public. And those who constitute the many, the British public that the government has once again turned a blind eye to. The government must also protect workers from sociopathic corporate policies, barring Virgin Atlantic from enforcing 8 weeks of unpaid leave, or Whole Foods’ suggestion that employees ‘donate’ sick leave to each other – despite being wholly owned by Amazon, one of the world’s largest conglomerates.

If we try to make sense of the government’s recent approach, the idea of the herd immunity strategy is that as more people get infected, more will become immune and no longer infectious, and can thus go back out into society and do what needs to be done as others recover. However, this fundamentally disregards the vulnerable, and in doing so puts the society and the country’s economy ahead of the lives of the needy. Professor Ian Donald, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool, recently attempted to break down the UK’s response, and took to twitter to explain;
‘The government strategy on coronavirus is more refined than those used in other countries and potentially very effective … There are limited health resources, so the aim is to manage the flow of the seriously ill to these. The Italian model aims to stop the infection. The UK wants infection BUT of particular categories of people. The aim of the UK is to have as many lower-risk people get infected as possible. Immune people cannot infect others; so the more there are, the lower the risk of infection. Based on this idea, at the moment the government wants people to get infected up until hospitals begin to reach capacity. Then they want to reduce, but not stop the infection rate – ideally, they balance it so that the numbers entering hospital = the number leaving’”

Professor Ian Donald also notes that he is not an expert and is merely attempting to make sense of the strategy. However, this also rings alarm bells as we once again see the British public being pushed into making sense of government decisions due to a clear lack of transparency. Nevertheless, a recent article by Dr Hanage of Harvard University debunked the government’s entire approach and warned that ‘vulnerable people should not be exposed to a virus right now in the service of a hypothetical future’, followed by direct criticism from the WHO. In recent days, the government has just decided to do a full about-turn, and backtrack these procedures, and the population must now wait for the new strategy, in the meantime being ‘prepared to lose loved ones’. Make no mistake, this delay in time to respond, the reluctance and arrogance of not following international best practice, and the ignoring of the vulnerable is costing lives in the UK and echoes the US’ failure to respond rationally and quickly. When looking at how easily the entire previous strategy was discredited, it is once again harder to believe that Johnson et al have put the interests of the people above their own. As Dr Hanage writes,
‘The most fundamental function of a government is to keep its people safe. It is from this that it derives its authority, the confidence of the people and its legitimacy. Nobody should be under the illusion that this is something that can be dodged through somehow manipulating a virus that we are only beginning to understand. This will not pass you by; this is not a tornado, it is a hurricane. Don’t panic, but do prepare. If your government won’t help you, do it yourself.’

The question is very simply then, is the government helping us? And if so, why do the British public have near-zero confidence in their prime minister, with only 36% placing their trust in him?

Attempting to answer this reveals fundamental problems present since 2010. For example, the consequences of prioritising ideology over expertise, as can be seen with the appointment of Michael Gove as Education secretary and his damaging educational reforms. Similarly, the manner in which groups core to Conservative votes from 2010 onwards have continually been privileged over others, e.g. pensioners over the young, and welfare cruelty masquerading as policy. There is of course also the issue of thinly disguised racism playing to populist agendas as evident with the Windrush scandal. Alongside this, there is a tendency to argue for anything that might yield electoral advantage as is with the case of Brexit tropes about interfering ‘foreigners’ and ‘swarms’ of refugees. But above all, perhaps, inconsistency and hypocrisy in the global narrative where there is no ‘magic money tree’, and so the weak must suffer, which has been the prevailing narrative since 2010. But even so, with Johnson’s ‘can do’ politics, apparently, there is a money tree, and everything will be for the best in the Brexitlands if only we believe hard enough. All of this means that it is increasingly hard to believe anything the Conservatives say and that a position such as the current one – when Britain’s policy is at odds with most of the world, and where little is done to defend it rationally in the public sphere – results in a growing crisis of belief. As Ben Okri wrote in his Grenfell poem: ‘there’s cladding everywhere…’

What is perhaps even more debilitating is the British press – renowned for giving platforms to racists, anti-semites, homophobes, transphobes, and Islamophobes alike – weighing in on Covid-19 and justifying behaviours towards Chinese people. Just recently, Douglas Murray likened the closing of borders to China (as a move to containing the virus), to being the same as avoiding Chinese people in one’s own country, take for example Chinatown in London. What is incredibly concerning is the depth of ignorance that blindingly shines through, as if Chinese people are innate carriers of the virus as opposed to the virus simply originating in China. Those same individuals Murray justifies avoiding, are at the same risk of being infected and being carriers as anyone else in Britain, and many are British citizens. Let us consider historical illnesses that originated in Europe and were carried to other nations in pursuit of empire, resulting in the deaths of millions, e.g. measles, smallpox, cholera, malaria, leprosy, the bubonic plague, influenza, typhus, and yellow fever. If one deployed Murray’s logic here, then the racism towards European’s would be unprecedented. This highlights the fight that may just be beginning as Brexit Britain offers validation to many discriminatory nationalist views. This form of British nationalism has zero place in an egalitarian future, and particularly in an international calamity. In times of crisis, we cannot let ourselves become divided, and the government must play a key role in ensuring unity to defeat this virus and quell misinformation, instead of pouring fuel on the fire.

Perhaps it is time to note that there are stark differences in the social implications of this pandemic, and it is the responsibility of the governing body to put the safety of its people before its ideology. The issues that have been broken down here should absolutely have been addressed by now, clearly, publicly, and consistently. Now is not the time for ideological warfare between the public and private sectors. Now is not the time for groundless Brexit Nationalism, and ignoring international advice. Now is the time for prioritising the safety of the people, ensuring transparency, rooting decisions in the welfare of the public, and standing in solidarity with humanity.

Afia Ahmed Chaudhry

Afia Ahmed Chaudhry

Afia Ahmed Chaudhry is a historian, writer, and postgraduate researcher. Her interests span social mobility, British Muslims, educational theory, pedagogy and curriculum development. She was recently published in the best-selling anthology It's Not About The Burqa, and has written extensively on British Muslims, Education, and ideology for an equitable society. She completed her undergraduate at SOAS, University of London, and later went on to study at King's College London and the UCL's Institute of Education. She is currently a postgraduate candidate for the University of Oxford in Learning and Teaching.