We are living in what has been described as ‘humanity’s darkest hour’ by the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The Bank of England base rate, which determines the interest rates of lending and is often used as a marker of national economic health, is at an all-time low of 0.1 percent. For the majority of the last decade of austerity, the rate was set at 0.5 percent. The financial crisis pales into significance when compared to the economic costs of the global corona virus, Covid-19, pandemic.
However, the human cost of austerity looms large. It is estimated that more than 130,000 preventable deaths have been caused by austerity (Institute for Public Policy Research, 2019). At the time of writing (09/04/2020) there have been 7,097 hospital deaths reported due to corona virus in the UK. Every number represents a person and it is important not to forget this. Yet, while the former number has largely been ignored by the government who have failed to respond to the human cost of austerity, the latter has been a constant feature in the media, with daily reporting, analysis, and governmental responses. It could be argued that this is a reflection of the more visible and measurable nature of death caused by Covid-19 combined with its real-time rapid increase. However, it is notable that those affected by the virus include the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, someone who would never have faced the real life impact of austerity, and which serves as a stark reminder that the virus is indiscriminate, as Conservative MPs keep pointing out. Unlike austerity, then, it appears that this time we really are ‘all in it together’. This article will demonstrate that appearances can be deceptive.
On the surface, the ‘we’re all in it together’ narrative rings true, with the pressures put on the NHS by the corona virus pandemic revealing the devastating impact of continued severe cuts to public spending over the last ten years. In this respect, the universal impacts of austerity are being brought to light, represented by a lack of: beds, protective equipment for healthcare staff, nurses and doctors, ventilators for patients. However, as Emily Maitlis recently pointed out on BBC’s Newsnight, the idea that the illness is “a great leveller [is] a myth that needs debunking”. Just as with austerity, “it’s [Covid-19] much, much harder if you’re poor.” Maitlis raises the pressing question “how do we stop it [Covid-19] making social inequality even greater?” This is a key question that needs to be seriously considered both in the present and once the immediate danger of the virus has passed.
To begin debunking this myth of equally shared hardship in the context of Covid-19, we need to bring to light its unequal impacts, many of which have compounded the already harsh and unequally felt effects of austerity. There are many ways in which Covid-19 reveals classed, gendered, racialised and ableist divides, too many unfortunately to expand on in this article. Therefore, in the following, I will briefly explore two inequalities that demonstrate how the negative impacts of austerity and Covid-19 interact, and the lack of government recognition of this.
The current lockdown, whilst informed by public health guidance on the best ways of minimising viral spread, is experienced differently depending on individuals’ social and economic positions. There is clearly a difference between socially isolating within a large house, with multiple rooms, sufficient space for multiple household members, and a private garden, compared to a family with young children isolating in a small high rise block of flats, in a densely populated area, with no access to green or outdoor space. The added pressures and stress of the latter situation is likely to have a more negative impact on individuals’ mental health, which may be exacerbated by the social stigma and policing of those who go to parks to get some space and time outside. Moreover, many individuals cannot work from home and risk job insecurity and/or putting their health at risk by continuing to go out to work. In the first week of lockdown, five London bus drivers have lost their lives to Covid-19.
While there are clear risks to having to leave the house in order to economically survive, there are also increased risks to being forced to remain indoors. As feminists have long demonstrated, the home is not the safest place for women who are at risk of domestic violence (DV). In a time of enforced isolation, it is likely that increased support will be needed for victims of DV. In the first few weeks of lockdown in the UK, we have seen the number of women losing their lives to DV rise from an average of 2 a week to 9 a week. Between 2010 and 2020, £16 billion will have been cut from local council’s budgets, including nearly a quarter (24%) of funding for domestic violence refuges being cut by more than 75% of England’s local authorities.
Combined with cuts to social care and youth and children’s services, the Women’s Budget Group’s (2019) report ‘Triple Whammy’ highlights how austerity continues to hit women the hardest. While these cuts have long been felt in women’s daily lives, the devastating impact of slashing women’s services becomes more apparent under lockdown. Yet, DV support workers were not included on the initial ‘key workers’ list and no consideration has been given by the government to the need for safe houses for women. Instead, activists and campaigners have been calling for hotels to open up their doors, free of charge, as many have done for NHS workers, to function as women’s DV refuges.
Although the virus may be indiscriminate, its impacts and how individuals experience the government response to the pandemic are not equal. Nevertheless, the unprecedented global and wide-reaching nature of the Covid-19 pandemic has made the impacts of austerity more apparent, and more widely felt by individuals who have typically been less directly affected in their daily lives by cuts to public spending. Many individuals find themselves in a position of job insecurity, unemployment, having to jump through the hoops of universal credit applications, waiting in virtual queues of thousands and facing weeks, even months, without an income. Everyone feels their dependence on the NHS, with recognition of the vital work healthcare professionals do being shown through the Thursday ‘clap for the NHS’ events. The hope is that such appreciation will in the future translate into material pay rises for NHS staff, and in the near future, higher consideration of staff safety at work, in regards to the need for protective equipment.
However, my fear is that this will not come to fruition, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock already proclaiming that “now is not the time to discuss pay rises for nurses”. Moreover, there is a very real risk that the government response, when the threat of Covid-19 subsides, and the economic debris remains, will be to replay the scenes of 2010, with austerity being the main agenda once again, culminating in harsher, deeper cuts to what remain of public services. It is vital that we do not allow the government to turn the economic crisis into a public responsibility, in the same way that they did with the financial crisis. The instruction “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives” places responsibility onto the shoulders of individuals and the public as a whole. Of course, we all have our part to play in minimising viral spread, however, we must push back against suggestions that it is the public’s, rather than the government’s, responsibility to “protect the NHS”.
The government must face up to the devastating impact austerity has had on the NHS and seek to ‘save lives’ in the future by ensuring an adequately resourced, National Health Service that is fit to serve the health of the nation. It is worth remembering that the NHS was created during a time of great economic recession, in the aftermath of the Second World War, when rather than subjecting people to further hardship, the government chose to increase public spending. More widely, there needs to be adequate support in place for the inevitable lasting mental health and economic consequences of the pandemic. If we are doomed to repeat history, let it be the post-war period of investment in the nation rather than the post-financial crisis period of cuts to public spending.
Emma Craddock is Senior Lecturer in Health Research at Birmingham City University. Her PhD research utilised a feminist methodology and a combination of qualitative research methods to produce an in-depth exploration of anti-austerity activist culture. A research monograph that draws on this research – Living Against Austerity: A Feminist Investigation of Doing Activism and Being Activist is now available. @emmacraddock89