The working class bears the brunt of the pandemic

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“Building Back Better” is the British bourgeoisie’s latest vacuous soundbite meant to convey, like its predecessor “Levelling Up”, that an equitable and just society is necessary and possible post-pandemic. What both phrases inadvertently acknowledge is that society continues to be divided along class lines and that “we” are most certainly not “all in it together”.

From health to housing, education to income, what the ruling class’s own statistics confirm is that the working class, having previously suffered decades of austerity, has been hardest hit over the past 12 plague months. From this perspective, it’s necessary to see that the economic crisis and social deprivations accelerated by Covid-19 have roots deep in the decadence and decay of capitalism in general and the decline of Britain in particular.

We will also see that sections of the proletariat, under the most difficult conditions, have nonetheless attempted a defence of basic class interests.

Health – an historic decline

Poverty has an absolute negative impact on health of the people. Take for instance the question of the life expectancy, as it had been reported by Sir Michael Marmot already before the start of the pandemic.  “Life expectancy has stalled for the first time in more than 100 years and even reversed for the most deprived women in society, (…) which shows the gap in health inequalities is yawning even wider than it did a decade ago, in large part due to the impact of cuts linked to the government’s austerity policies.”

“Sir Michael Marmot’s review, 10 years after he warned that growing inequalities in society would lead to worse health, reveals a shocking picture across England, which he says is no different to the rest of the UK and could have been prevented… Real cuts to people’s incomes are damaging the nation’s health for the long term. Not only are lifespans stalling, but people are living for more years in poor health…. ‘This damage to the nation’s health need not have happened. It is shocking,’ said Marmot, director of the UCL [University College London] Institute of Health Equity.[1]

The new Marmot Review, published in February 2020 [2] was said to imply a “15-20 year difference in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest areas of the UK.” [3] For men in the poorest areas, you could expect to live nine years fewer than someone in one of its most affluent areas” [4]

So when Covid-19 and then lockdown hit in February-March 2020, it affected most Those living in the poorest parts of Britain [who] have a greater chance of suffering from heart and lung disease, and their children are more than twice as likely to be obese as those in the richest parts. People condemned to poor-quality housing are more likely to have illnesses such as asthma, and with mental health disproportionately damaged by the stresses of poverty, the poorest men are up to 10 times more at risk of suicide than the richest.” [5]

Poor housing, health and diet – the lot of much of the British proletariat - became breeding grounds for the spread of Covid and encouraged its most pernicious repercussions.

“For some of the most deprived areas in England, January [2021] was the deadliest month since the pandemic began. In January the Covid mortality rate in Burnley [Lancashire] was more than double the English average, and deaths from all causes were 60 per cent higher than the English average.” [6]

Not just in the North of England: The capital, London, has been home to the so-called “Covid Triangle” of three Boroughs. “Barking & Dagenham, Redbridge and Newham were competing for the highest rate of infections in the whole country. In Barking & Dagenham, one in 16 people was reported to be infected … Within this area, a high proportion of the workforce are either essential staff who cannot stay at home … or those forced out to work by job insecurity … As the more contagious mutation sent death rates skyrocketing locally, it also exposed a complex web of deeper problems that have built up over many years. In particular, the increased exposure to the virus collided with the problems faced by an already susceptible population, many of whom suffered from comorbidities and poorer health outcomes.”

“High levels of deprivation and job insecurity, vast income inequality, housing discrimination and medical disparities have long had a severe impact on the tangle of communities and ethnic minority populations that live in these boroughs. But when combined with the necessity to go to work, to take public transport and to share space in densely packed housing, they also provided the perfect breeding ground for a deadly virus. The domino effect would prove catastrophic.”[7]

The above description, from the “boss’s newspaper” the Financial Times, explains very clearly that the issue here isn’t simply one of “ethnic” or other minorities being singled out for suffering, but that their suffering is part and parcel of the working class’s generalised immiseration.

Britain’s statutory workers’ sick pay – to which the lowest earners aren’t even entitled – is amongst the most meagre in Europe. Through necessity, many workers avoided being tested for Covid – one factor which helped render the “world beating” test and trace system ineffective. A study by King’s College London and Public Health England found that of those who reported the key Covid symptoms only 18% had self-isolated. “Our study did indicate … that financial constraints and caring responsibilities are common barriers to adherence.” [8] The bourgeoisie’s historic decimation of the social wage – payments to support individuals in need and to maintain hospitals and care services - is thus a primary factor driving Covid infection rates in Britain to “world beating” levels.

For those workers made unemployed, furloughed at home on reduced wages or obliged to recover from illness there, life could be fractious. With schools closed to all but the children of those judged “key workers”, parents, many of them working extended hours from home, were obliged also to become teachers, cut off by lockdown from (unpaid) family or community care networks. The proletariat as a whole suffered disproportionately. The term “digital poverty” was coined to explain why many working class kids had no laptops for distanced learning or even a home internet connection.

“Towards the end of 2020, 23 per cent of the UK population was living in poverty. The 700,000 people plunged into hardship during the pandemic included 120,000 children. Growing poverty levels were driven by a few factors. Stay at home orders have driven up living costs, with households paying more for gas and electricity as well as spending more on food for children who might normally get free school meals. That combines with soaring unemployment as lockdowns made it difficult for sectors like hospitality and retail to operate. The UK’s unemployment rate hit 5.1 per cent at the end of 2020, meaning 1.74 million people were out of work. Office for National Statistics figures showed a 454,000 rise compared to the same point in 2019 and the highest unemployment numbers since 2016.” [9]

This report by Big Issue magazine also said that three quarters of children living in poverty came from households where one parent was in or was seeking work. At Christmas time 2020, the United Nation’s Unicef charity launched a domestic emergency response in the UK for the first time in its 70-year history to help feed children hit by the Covid-19 crisis!

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) warned of the likely repercussions of the Pandemic: These include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, feelings of entrapment and burdensomeness, substance misuse, loneliness, domestic violence, child neglect or abuse, unemployment, and other financial insecurity. Appropriate services must be made available for people in crisis and those with new or existing mental health problems. Of greatest concern, is the effect of economic damage from the pandemic. One study reported that after the 2008 economic crisis, rates of suicide increased in two thirds of the 54 countries studied, particularly among men and in countries with higher job losses.” [10] As we have seen, far from providing the “appropriate services” demanded by the BMJ, the British state has been whittling away at these for the past 30 years.

Faced with a growing pauperisation, nearly nine million people borrowed more money last year because of the impact of coronavirus.  Since June last year, the proportion of workers borrowing £1,000 or more had increased from 35% to 45%, said the Office for National Statistics. Self-employed people were more likely than employees to borrow money. There was also a large increase in the proportion of disabled people borrowing similar sums.” [11] A photo of hundreds of people queuing in the snow for food at a soup kitchen in Glasgow “went viral” as the demand on food banks soared over the winter.

Not everyone even had a roof over their heads during the first year of the pandemic. Despite the state’s attempts to “clear the streets” by opening some hostels and hotels to the homeless, “Almost 1,000 homeless deaths occurred last year across the UK... The Museum of Homelessness said the figure rose by more than a third on the previous year, and called for more to be done to stop such ‘terrible loss of life’”. [12]

Death in harness

We have seen how, for many workers made unemployed or furloughed on reduced pay, life “at home” or on the streets was and remains fraught with danger. For many, this option just wasn’t and isn’t available: sick or at risk, the need to earn a wage obliged them to work. And it is therefore no surprise to discover that Covid took its greatest toll in areas traditionally manned by the working class.

Given the well-documented shortages of PPE, poor social distancing and the callous clearing out of the untested elderly from hospitals into largely ill-prepared care homes [13], it was the nurses, care workers and other “front-line” staff who bore the brunt. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that care-home workers and nurses are among those most likely to die from coronavirus, alongside machine operatives, home carers, chefs, restaurant managers, and bus drivers.

Like ill-health, exhaustion leaves workers prone to viral infection and at the start of the pandemic there were some 100,000 vacancies within the NHS, including 20,000 in the nursing sector. As over-crowding and staff illness took its toll, fewer and fewer medical and support staff dealt with more and more patients, adding to their own risk of infection. Hospitals themselves became breeding grounds for Covid-19. In January, 2021, “52,000 NHS staff are off sick with Covid. Over 850 UK healthcare workers are thought to have died of Covid between March and December 2020.” [14] 1 out of 4 people who were hospitalised with Covid caught it in hospital!

UK food processing plants - including abattoirs - were also viral hotspots, while bus drivers were found to be particularly at risk, especially because of the delay in installing protective screens for the drivers. The long-term effects of cancelled hospital treatments coupled with failing services for vulnerable, disabled or mentally ill people have yet to be calculated, although almost 5 million NHS patients were in early April 2021 awaiting treatment cancelled or delayed “because of Covid”. The working class in general does not have the means to source “alternative” or “private” treatments.

The State’s attitude to the working class in GB

The British bourgeoisie has considered it prudent, in the face of its worst economic crisis since the 1930s to “invest” an estimated £400 billion in various forms of “rescue” packages, including furlough payments and a temporary extension of Universal Credit. This debt-driven disbursement of value previously created by the working class, or predicated on its future exploitation, has not been actioned out of altruism but to preserve whole industries and firms from bankruptcy, to maintain a minimum workforce, and to ensure a modicum of social cohesion. In this sense, today’s situation – mirrored in most major industrial countries – holds certain similarities with the ancient Roman Empire which in its decadent epoch was obliged to feed its slaves, rather than be fed by them.

However, determined to show that despite its “relief” measures the state is no ”soft-touch”, the Government of Boris Johnson – those who coined “Building Back Better” and “Levelling Up”, - insisted that yesterday’s “heroes”, NHS staff including nurses, should be limited to a pay rise of one per cent: around 60 pennies a day after tax. This was coldly calculated to send a signal to the working class as a whole: “if the deserving nurses aren’t going to be showered with money, neither are you”.

Ramming the idea home was a well-publicised Supreme Court ruling in March 2021 that care staff across the UK, who sleep at their workplace in case they are needed, are not entitled to the minimum wage for their whole shift.

And in case the message wasn’t clear enough, tens of thousands more workers face their existing terms and conditions being torn up and replaced by much harsher regimes of exploitation – the policy of “fire and rehire”, gateway to the extension of precarious work, zero-hours contracts and the “gig economy”. Tesco, British Telecom, British Gas, and various bus companies are amongst the businesses employing this “tactic”. One in 10 workers was said to be affected by such plans. All this in the name of “greater productivity” and higher “efficiency”. It’s the working class that’s being presented with a £400 billion bill.

Backing up all this is the state’s threat of greater repression enshrined in the “Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill” which has sparked protests across Britain. [15] Sabotaging the struggle from within, the trade unions are gearing up to pose as the “natural” defenders of the working class, in the face of these new attacks – the Royal College of Nurses’ (RCN) strike threat and 12% pay claim to counter the government’s 1% offer being just the most obvious example.

Working Class Resistance

The traditions and lessons of widespread working class struggles (like those in 1972 and 1984 in GB) have largely been buried over the past 30 years or so and the recent lockdowns in response to the pandemic impose further restrictions on workers’ ability to defend their interests. Nonetheless, there have been expressions of working class anger and attempts at self-organisation, including last summer’s demonstrations by health workers across Britain [16] and the recent rent strikes by students in GB and student demonstrations in France. [17]

In the health sector, as mentioned above, the RCN nurses’ union and the Unison union “representing” other NHS staff were obliged to talk of organising strike or protest action in the face of growing anger at poor pay and life-threatening conditions on the wards and in theatres. At least one protest (in Manchester on March 7, 2021) against the pay rise was met with dispersal orders and arrests “for breaking social distancing rules”. For the moment, such union actions appear to have helped delay any self-activity and to have defused the militancy, if not the resentment, of nurses and other NHS staff.

Other incidents of struggle in this sector were noted by the AngryWorkersWorld Blog of March 5, including: In January 2021, porters went on 11 days of strike action organised by Unison against ‘fire and re-hire’ by the NHS Trust at Heartlands in Birmingham... In March 2021, more than 150 porters, cleaners, switchboard and catering staff employed at Cumberland Infirmary by facilities company Mitie, took a first day of action with Unison over missing payments for working unsocial hours. Mitie workers also took action with the GMB at Epsom & St Helier NHS Trust for unpaid wages. These disputes affect mainly the outsourced fringe.” [18]

On April 6, around 1,400 workers at the government’s vehicle licensing offices (DVLA) in Swansea began a four-day strike against inadequate Covid safety provisions which have seen over 500 cases of infection across two facilities. At the same time an “indefinite strike” by almost 500 bus workers at Go North West in Manchester entered its sixth week in the face of a company plan to impose a fire and hire contact implying losses of pay up to £2,500 a year and massive cuts in sick-pay provisions. In the capital, over 2,000 bus drivers at London United, London Sovereign and Quality Line have been taking “rolling” strike action since the end of February in opposition to fire and rehire schemes. Around one third of drivers are said to have rejected the Unite Union’s proposed settlement with the bosses and there have been pickets at bus depots.

Early in March, thousands of British Gas field engineers staged a four-day strike – the latest in a series of their actions in opposition to fire and rehire proposals. The company issued dismissal notices to almost 1000 workers refusing to sign up to the new deal on April 1. April 5 saw hundreds of Deliveroo drivers – some of whom earn as little as £2 an hour and whose precarious terms of service epitomise the “gig economy” – go on strike and stage a protest outside the company HQ in London. The anger of up to 50,000 engineers and support staff at British Telecom at site closures, 1000 proposed job losses and contract re-writes has so far been contained by a two-pronged attack: from the company in the form of inducements of cash payments of between £1000 and £1500 and by the Communications Union which has engaged in a series of ballots and talks with management aimed at taking the heat out of the situation.

The above actions - by no means an inclusive account - show that workers have not been cowed by the pandemic nor government propaganda but also that, in general, their resistance has so far been relatively well-corralled and defused by the trade unions and has largely been unable to resist the austerity being proposed or imposed. The attacks on workers’ conditions and living standards can only increase in the coming period, whatever stage the pandemic has reached.  The resistance of the working class to these attacks will be more necessary than ever.

Robert Frank, 17/04/2021

[1] Austerity blamed for life expectancy stalling for first time in century; The Guardian, February 25, 2020. In addition, The British Medical Journal “reported in early 2019 that cuts to health and social care budgets between 2010 and 2017 led to about 120,000 early deaths in the UK, a pretty shocking finding,” according to author Bill Bryson in his book, ‘The Body…’ published by Doubleday in 2019.

[3] The Guardian, February 25, 2020.

[4] The combination of Covid and class has been devastating for Britain's poorest; The Guardian, January 26, 2021.

[5] The Guardian, January 26, 2021.

[6] There are people 'too poor to Die' BBC News, March 6, 2021.

[7] Inside The Covid Triangle, Financial Times, March 5, 2021.

[8] Effective test, trace and isolate needs better communication and support; News Centre King’s College London; 25 September 2020.

[10] Trends in Suicide During the Covid-19 Pandemic, BMJ, November 12, 2020.

[11] Covid: Nine million people forced to borrow more to cope; BBC News, January 21, 2021.

[14] Ministers under fresh pressure over PPE for NHS heroes on coronavirus frontline; Daily Mirror, January 20, 2021.

[15] See our article: Workers have no interest in defending capitalism’s “democratic rights”, ICConline. In truth, the “democratic state” does not require further legislation to persecute and prosecute genuine class struggle: the revelations of an infamous conspiracy between police, media, bosses, trade unions, judiciary and government against “flying pickets” (ie those who seek an extension of the struggle to other workers) in the 1972 builders’ strike, and the convictions of 24 workers (“The Shrewsbury 24”) arising from this, were only overturned in March this year … just half a century after the events! So while marking a real extension of police powers, the new Bill before Parliament also serves as a specific warning at this juncture to the population and workers to “toe the line”.

[17] See the introduction to: Faced with poverty, young people are not giving up, ICConline.

[18] 1%? Up yours! We need health workers' and patients' power! See also: A sign of things to come, on the International Communist Tendency Leftcom website.

 

Rubric: 

Covid-19 in the UK