Coronavirus, inequality and the ‘tipping point’

Author Posts Apr 9, 2020

T.S. Eliot, in his high modernist poem The Wasteland, declared April to be ‘the cruellest month’. In April 2020, as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds across the UK, the cruelty of social inequality is indeed exposed more than ever. Some who are having to self-isolate and quarantine themselves will do so in houses that are a pleasure to reside in, with feelings of security and warmth. Millions however will do so in circumstances that are quite different.

After more than a decade of ‘austerity’ in government spending, and even after it is supposed to have ended as the dominant mode of government fiscal policy, savage inequalities cut deep into British society.

Putting to one side for a moment the threat to life that the coronavirus has brought, we can imagine the quite different experiences of the emergency at either end of the UK’s social spectrum. The already affluent, who have done so well over this last decade, occupy themselves during this pandemic in comfortable homes with baking, gardening, ‘Zoom-socialising’ with friends and family and catching up with reading. However, those who have over this same time struggled to make ends meet and to support their families on low incomes, are pushed into various kinds of family and personal crisis.

In Just Managing: What it Means for the Families of Austerity Britain, families talked about their sub-standard housing conditions and homes that were cold, damp and otherwise poorly maintained by negligent landlords. They talked about lack of amenities and outlets for their children, and the difficulties caused by overcrowded living spaces. For all of these families, representative of millions in their position, the fact of having to rent in the private sector because of the impossibility of accessing social housing, meant living with constant worries about eviction and homelessness. Now, for these types of families, coronavirus has made already stressful and precarious lives even more stressful and precarious. New languages will not be learnt, classics will not be read and new interests will not be discovered. Rather the struggle to survive will become more intense than ever.

In the context of this public health emergency, ‘survival’ now of course has a direct and literal meaning. Here we do come to the matter of the threat to life, and here we are not ‘all in this together’. For workers on the lowest wages and with the most insecure types of employment, the risks of encountering this deadly virus are inordinately greater than they are for the better-off in society. Many have come under pressure to continue to go to work in workplaces that make proper social-distancing simply impossible, despite being in ‘non-essential’ occupations. They are more likely also to have to use public transport to get to those places of work with long commutes. These working people are school staff, health workers, agency cleaners, transport workers, logistics workers, supermarket workers, postal workers, etc. Amongst the poorest, pre-existing poor health is also more likely to be a concern. This virus was not created by social inequality; however, social inequality is now its ‘sinister aid’, helping it to take lives as it cuts its vicious and deadly path through communities.

Our book ended with these words:

The merchants of austerity should take note. It is not just family stability that can be ‘tipped’. So too can the willingness of those who are just managing to put up with it all.

When we wrote these words, we could not have imagined they would become a matter of life and death for thousands of working people living in the most compromised of circumstances. However, they have become more relevant than ever – and brutally so.

Mark O'Brien and Paul Kyprianou's Just Managing? What it Means for the Families of Austerity Britain can be read and downloaded freely here.