Saturday 28 March 2020

United in isolation

Until a few months ago a lot of British people, to the complete bafflement of a lot of other British people, seemed to have embraced the notion that we were fighting a war. Standing alone against a continental invasion, this plucky island nation was taking back control. But unlike World War 2, far from uniting us this war was tearing us in half.

Now we know what it feels like to face a real enemy, not one with tanks and bombers, but an enemy nonetheless that we must unite to defend ourselves against.

It’s hard to imagine that so recently all some of us could think about was Brexit. What was breaking our hearts was the looming reality of leaving. That has now been pushed out of the news by Covid-19. For the time being, the free movement of people across Europe is a theoretical issue. Whatever the state of Brexit negotiations, London is no longer a destination for the Italian barista wanting to improve her English, because she’s stuck at home in lockdown. The young British opera singer excluded from European opera houses isn’t performing anywhere, except in his flat, singing through the walls to his neighbours.

But this pandemic will pass and Brexit will remain, limiting all kinds of arguably even more important things, such as the free movement of research scientists, shared access to scientific funding, and pan-European strategies for coping with crises such as this. And we will still have to deal with the impact of Brexit on our National Health Service.

One of the painful paradoxes of the Battle for Brexit was that ordinary Leavers and Remainers were united, if in nothing else, in their shared concern that the NHS should thrive. The leaders of the Brexit campaign turned reality on its head to make NHS funding the principle benefit of leaving, knowing how much our health service is loved and valued, knowing also that, in truth, its assets and marketable activities, long coveted by predatory capitalists, would become a major bargaining chip in any post-Brexit trade talks with the USA.

In Britain we’ve been rolling back the state for 40 years. New Labour applied the brakes, but the onward pressure has been towards ever more private ownership. In all that time, no party has ever campaigned with a promise to privatise our health care. But the champions of the free market have done their best to prepare the ground by starving it of funds. We’re all now paying for that.

We’ve known for a long time that nurses are underpaid, that everyone’s overworked, and that the whole system functions at the limits of what it can manage, exploiting the dedication and goodwill of the employees. Now we know that the most basic equipment needed to deal with an epidemic isn’t available. For decades we’ve stockpiled nuclear weapons in the hope that we’d never have to use them. Why not protective clothing? Why not, in a prosperous country such as this, an inbuilt excess capacity of beds and equipment, with a generous provision for sabbaticals so that the pool of trained workers is greater than the normal need?

Because it’s not as if we couldn’t have seen this coming. Apart from the warnings from scientists, there have been enough actual viral outbreaks in recent years to alert politicians and policymakers to the dangers. And yet here we are.

As I struggle to look on the bright side, three thoughts to occur to me.

First, I’m thinking about poverty, homelessness and social deprivation. We’ve lived with these things forever, but, during my lifetime, more acutely since governments began hacking away at the welfare state. We’re used to politicians expressing concern, or not, pointing out that resources are limited, that since there’s no magic money-tree we all have to tighten our belts, that raising taxes would discourage enterprise and be bad for the economy.

And then Covid-19 arrived. The government flirted briefly with a libertarian response. We were going for ‘herd immunity’ – a science-y way of saying, ‘Let’s do nothing’. Perhaps in the radical right-wing circles where people take pride in thinking the unthinkable, this looked like an attractive option. Death would come disproportionately to the old, the sick and the economically unproductive, and the impact on share prices would be minimized. But images of overwhelmed hospitals in southern Europe were emerging to remind us that even such a passive exercise in eugenics would require operatives on the ground – doctors and nurses working relentlessly and under stress, often at the cost of their own health, and having to make impossible judgements about who to treat and who to abandon.

The ‘herd immunity’ approach was rapidly replaced with a set of old-fashioned socialist interventions. Perhaps it will be just a bit harder after this to argue that we must impose austerity on the poor to protect the investments of the wealthy because there's no alternative.  

Secondly, looking ahead beyond this pandemic, a greater danger continues to threaten us. The planet is still heating up and the oceans continue to rise. Well, who knew until a couple of weeks ago, that it was possible to intervene in the global market to the extent of stopping planes from flying? What else will we discover we can do?

Thirdly, there's this new sense of social cohesion. The other week, back when panic buying was a thing, a woman queuing ahead of me at the supermarket check-out turned and said darkly, ‘This could get ugly.’ Well it hasn’t yet. Now we queue all down the street, six feet apart, waiting politely to be invited in.  

Few of us can follow the epidemiological details, but we seem to have understood that getting through this is a collective endeavour. While the most vulnerable must be shielded, for most of us this is not principally about self-protection. We may not know much about exponential curves, but we seem to have grasped that this is one we want to flatten, reducing its height by extending its duration. It’s likely that before a vaccine is available more of us will get the virus than not. But if we form an orderly queue, there’s a better chance that those who are badly affected will receive the treatment they need. 

After all the efforts by politicians over the years to persuade us that we are essentially economic units competing in the marketplace, in this crisis we instinctively understand that we’re in it together.

See also: Five arguments for public healthcare


  1. Joe, your column is typically thoughtful and a pick-me-up. In the U.S. we are so divided (thanks primarily to the Great Divider Trump) that each side is using the virus to confirm our own biases.

    Also, if irony hadn't mostly died in 9/11, now irony is breathing its last breaths in a rusty ventilator. Pro lifers are advocating letting seniors die. Defict hawks are spending money primarily to try to keep our economy alive until after the Nov. elections, and libertarians and low regulation Republicans are seeking to quarantine entire states.
    Trump and Britain are about to get a lesson in how nations' economies are interconnected. Major countries such as India, Brazil, Indonesia etc. buy our goods and sell us their goods and resources. Soon the virus will hit them hard and it is more difficult for their large poor populations to social distance. Many of them are on the margin already in health services, nutrition, etc. Our nationalists will sit back with smug satisfaction until they start paying more from goods from abroad or until they lose jobs because their export dependent businesses dry up. Maybe, just maybe, the coming events will put a chink in the nationalist movement...maybe. Who knows, it may even help Brexit proponents wake up and smell the tea. Best wishes.

  2. Beautifully written and right on the money and nose (and lungs for that matter)

  3. I'm glad you approve, Mike. And thanks, George, for those sharp observations!