• Chris Fairley

The COVID Class Divide

We Aren’t All in this Together

A year ago, at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak told us that “we’re all in this together”. He borrowed the phrase from George Osborne, Chancellor from 2010 to 2016 and a chief architect of austerity. Like Osborne, Sunak was trying to reassure us that we’ll face this pandemic together, bearing its burdens as one and overcoming it by supporting each other. Like Osborne, Sunak was lying.

It’s hard to say why Rishi Sunak (the private-schooled former banker and current Chancellor) and George Osborne (the private-schooled former Chancellor and current banker) both misrepresented the way that their government’s crises would impact different parts of society - particularly the Working Class. Whatever it is, though, the impacts are clear: just as austerity made the rich richer while forcing Working Class communities to bear the brunt of cuts, so too has the UK’s Coronavirus response been big business for the wealthy and a nightmare for the rest of us.

The UK’s billionaires increased their wealth by 35% (or £40 billion) during the pandemic [1]. Health Secretary Matt Hancock broke the law when handing out pandemic contracts [2], one of which was a huge order of test kits from a mate of his with no experience in medical supplies [3]. The UK’s wealthy are jetting off abroad to skip vaccine queues on luxury vaccine holidays [4]. If we’re really all in it together, then the postman has a lot of questions to answer about where my multi-million pound contract or plane ticket to Dubai have gone.

While the wealthy are cashing in, Working Class communities are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Coronavirus itself might not discriminate, might not care how rich you are - society definitely does, though. Risk of infection hinges on class - how able are you to work from home? To isolate? To call in sick? What about the people around you - in your household, your building, your neighbourhood?

The British Medical Journal has reported that proper PPE can completely protect people from the virus [5], but millions of British workers don’t have anything even resembling the power to demand it. Four million people vulnerable to Coronavirus are asked to stay at home and “shield”, but none of them have the right to demand furlough or paid time off. The whole country remains under lockdown, but many household cleaners and other domestic workers are being forced to risk their lives in wealthy, risk-breaking households. Workers in this country have been stripped of the power to demand a safe working environment, and Coronavirus is using the opportunity that’s opened up to tear through Working Class Communities.

Low paid workers are bearing the brunt of this pandemic [6]: Of those of us lucky enough to be furloughed rather than sacked, 1.3 million have been pushed below the national minimum wage [7]. Of those of us unfortunate enough to get ill, 2 million are ineligible for any sick pay (with many more only eligible for the statutory £95 per week, the lowest in Europe) [8].

Universal Credit use has doubled to six million people [9]. One in five UK schools have had to set up foodbanks [10]. Over 70,000 households have been made homeless [11]. Because of a systemic refusal to redistribute wealth, empower Working Class communities or even meet people’s basic needs, this pandemic has been defined by precarity and destitution.

Not only has this pandemic been defined by inequality, but inequality has driven the pandemic itself. The BMJ listed widening inequality alongside the government’s pandemic response as the main reason for England having the highest rate of excess deaths in Europe [12]. The government’s own Test and Trace head, Dido Harding, blamed the total lack of financial support for people not properly isolating [13].

The same structural classism that has defined the pandemic is likely to define it’s recovery, with Coronavirus acting as a concentrated full stop at the end of a decade of austerity. In the last year huge corporations have made record profits off the back of poor working conditions [14], with companies like Amazon increasing UK sales by £20 billion and taking up a third of UK warehouse space - warehouses now defined by zero hours contracts, stolen wages and oppressive working conditions [15].

If we’re not careful the recovery from Coronavirus will be one characterised by the Amazons and Matt Hancocks of the world - a new normal comprised of even greater inequality, corruption and crisis. Our high streets won’t really recover, our charities and public services will continue to collapse, and the material conditions of our lives will continue to get worse. All to line the pockets of the wealthy.

There are seeds of hope, though. The explosion of mutual aid at the start of pandemic, the mass participation in Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer, and majority support for “radical” policies like a Green New Deal [16], all point to a huge appetite for real, transformative change. But we need to realise that appetite, and soon. As we emerge from Coronavirus we can confront the decay it left at our door and create a country to be proud of, or we can begin another decade of crumbling workers’ rights, civil society crackdowns and inequality.

If the Working Class doesn’t lead the way out of a crisis, we bear the burden and the blame for it. We learned that lesson every day for the last decade of austerity, let’s not learn it again.

Chris is a Working Class organiser and activist, who can be found at chris@britainhasclass.org.

[1] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/rishi-sunak-said-hed-protect-the-vulnerable-so-why-is-he-making-them-pay/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/19/matt-hancock-acted-unlawfully-failing-publish-covid-contracts-high-court

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/26/matt-hancock-former-neighbour-won-covid-test-kit-contract-after-whatsapp-message

[4] https://www.standard.co.uk/insider/are-the-superrich-skipping-the-vaccine-queue-b921226.html

[5] https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2641

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/may/16/low-paid-workers-bear-brunt-of-coronavirus-recession-study-shows

[7] https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/2021-02/January%20debt%20report.pdf

[8] https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/sick-pay-works

[9] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/universal-credit-statistics-29-april-2013-to-14-january-2021/universal-credit-statistics-29-april-2013-to-14-january-2021#people-on-uc-header

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/04/rise-in-food-banks-in-uk-schools-highlights-depth-of-covid-crisis-survey

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/09/70000-households-in-uk-made-homeless-during-pandemic

[12] https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4842

[13] https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/sick-pay-works

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/dec/31/covid-winners-losers-pay-uk-year-in-business

[15] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/amazon-uk-profits-soar-20bn-23526418

[16] https://www.centrefortowns.org/reports/public-opinion-on-the-environment