Many people don’t want to hear about 2020 and its unprecedented loss, grief and trauma ever again. So many have needlessly died, despite the best efforts of health care staff, front-line workers and communities who stepped up in these tough times with very little real thanks. When you’re exhausted and facing crisis after crisis rooted in inconsistent public health policies, claps don't cut it.
It’s now January 2021 and the virus is surging just as vaccinations are starting. Our hospitals are over capacity, and our health care workers are beyond stretched. The ‘UK’, which isn't even in the world's top 20 in terms of overall population, ranks 5th in the world for the number of people killed by Covid. From the Tories' 'herd immunity' last spring to their 'world-beating' test and trace system, it has been a shit-show.
With honourable exceptions, and many decent people aside, the institutions which are supposed to protect the people we organise with - Stormont, Dáil Éireann, Westminster - have failed in spectacular ways. Many working within government and the public sector are doing their best with a bad hand, occasionally taking career risks to speak out or trying to bend an unresponsive and bureaucratic system to meet community need.
The NHS, already weakened by years of stagnation, under-investment and privatisation, has had to step up and save lives that should never have been at risk in the first place.
At the start of the first lockdown, strange and frightening as it was, we saw that the state could find the money for unprecedented economic and social rights protections: furlough funds for workers, accommodation for the homeless, increases to social welfare payments – moves which previously political leaders told us would be nice, but were impossible.
But ten months on, hundreds of thousands of households have fallen through the large cracks in government programming. The number of people in poverty has never been higher, while the governments have repeatedly had to be shamed into providing food vouchers for hungry children. Time and again ‘the economy’ has been prioritised over public health in decision making. And time and again, the result has been a spike in Covid positive cases and deaths. This is bad economics. Select businesses who hold a monopoly or were poised to capitalise on the Pandemic – think Amazon and Zoom - have made a fortune, while smaller ones have been devastated.
As we enter into the next uncertain phase, with the Brexit debacle upon us, one eye on new Covid variants and the other on the climate emergency, what have we learned? What kind of new normal are we working towards?
The public have been generous with decision makers – giving them plenty of space to make tough decisions in difficult times without having to fear a barrage of criticism, opportunistic or valid or both. But while space can be provided for emergency situations – when emergencies are prolonged, emergency responses are not sufficient. People require structural and sustainable changes to income, housing and health provision that provide immediate relief and long term protections. People require accountability.
As we enter into the next uncertain phase, with the Brexit debacle upon us, one eye on new Covid variants and the other on the climate emergency, what have we learned? What kind of new normal are we working towards? PPR are reflecting on this now with our network.
One thing above all else seems clear: the ideas and leadership required to ‘build back better’ is a responsibility we don’t have the luxury of leaving to others. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us who puts self-interest above public safety and who we can best work with to meet the upcoming challenges.
All too soon, the inadequate state-led relief efforts still in place will be rolled back. The bill is coming, and it won’t be laid at the door of those most capable of paying it if we permit a return to business-as-usual. We need an economy for the future that protects people’s human rights: one that sees the production and provision of shelter, food and resources as a public good; that supports health, happiness and meaningful connections with each other.
The old boys couldn’t provide that, so what's the plan now? Will we opt for more bailouts for airlines, contracts for telecoms companies, vouchers for businesses -- and zero hours contracts for everyone else? Will we allow more austerity?
We need change.
The pandemic has brought forth new possibilities for organising and nourishing our communities and for opting-out of harmful practices in favour of more ethical, effective and fulfilling alternatives.
What we do next is critical.
Seán Brady is Assistant Director of Programmes with PPR.