Becci Heagney, Socialist Alternative Political committee
Today, Health Secretary Matt Hancock attacked those who continued to go outside as “very selfish”. He said it was the fault of people who were going to bars, clubs and restaurants last week, despite them being open, that they’ve been forced to close them. Meanwhile, Cumbria police tweeted “a national emergency is not an excuse for a holiday” to have a go at people visiting the Lake District over the weekend.
But most of those visiting parks and taking countryside walks this weekend will have thought they were following government guidelines - which had specifically said that outdoor walks and exercising were okay - so long as a two meter distance is maintained between people who don't live together.
New, further reaching measures are expected to increase the “lockdown” in the next couple of days. Measures to limit and slow the spread of Coronavirus are clearly needed and people generally want good, scientific advice and guidance about what they should and should not do. However, the rhetoric coming from the government and in certain parts of the press over the weekend is aiming to put the blame on us as individuals and to let themselves off the hook. It should be remembered that it was Boris Johnson who, just over a week ago, was telling us to carry on as normal (aside from some extra hand washing), and explaining that his strategy was for enough of us to catch the virus to develop a so-called herd immunity. Dominic Cummings, Johnson's chief advisor, is even alleged to have said "if some pensioners die, too bad".
The government is also using this issue, and the huge desire for effective measures, to bring in unnecessary attacks on democratic rights, including some draconian measures, such as the police having the right to arrest and detain anyone they suspect of having Coronavirus, with these measures only being reviewed after six months.
The Tory government is preparing the ground to divert attention from their mishandling of this crisis, and decades of neoliberal policies which paved the way for it to be far more devastating than it needs to be. We oppose any attempts to scapegoat working class people, when it is the drive for profit that has been put before public health.
New guidance says that people should avoid travelling unless it is essential at the same time as pictures are on social media showing people cramming onto the tube in London. Is this because people just don’t care? No! Ordinary people have shown thousands of times over in this crisis that the vast majority want to do what they can to protect society and the vulnerable. But on the one hand, workers are told to keep their kids at home unless they are ‘key workers’; on the other, Pets at Home have written to their staff claiming that dog groomers are ‘key workers’ and should stay in work. It is big business that is responsible for most of those still being forced to travel to work - and by failing to confront these major capitalist companies seriously, the government is to blame too.
Other mixed messages have included the supposed strategy of ‘herd immunity’ against staying indoors, self-isolation against continuing to go outside for exercise. Most people are confused about what they should do for the best. Many have no choice but to go outside or go to work.
Obviously, we should all take some personal responsibility for the way in which we act in this crisis. But we should counter this attempt to already rewrite the history of how Coronavirus has spread so rapidly and why it can be fatal to so many. This is a crisis of the capitalist system, with lethal consequences for potentially millions of working class and poor people globally.
The virus itself appears to have been able to spread from animals to humans as a result of the profit-driven food production and distribution system, despite many other epidemics over the last couple of decades showing that poor standards in food, lack of planning and control and disruption to ecosystems are part of the problem.
Then, the slow response initially from the Chinese regime - which first responded by attempting to cover the crisis up and persecute health workers for blowing the whistle - and then from other governments internationally, allowed the virus to spread around the globe. Social care and health services, having been starved of resources for decades, are buckling under the pressure and struggling to treat people, let alone prevent the further spread of the virus. People will be dying in NHS hospitals because there are insufficient ventilators, beds and staff - not primarily because a minority of people didn’t follow social distancing guidelines strictly enough.
Instead of accusing ordinary people of not taking this seriously, the capitalist class should look at their own inaction. Their main concern is their profits and the impact on the economy, rather than people’s health. They aren’t even prepared to fund testing beyond the most severe hospitalised cases! There is lots of evidence suggesting that mass planned testing is far more effective than even the most stringent social distancing regulations.
Compare this to the explosion of solidarity in local communities. Support groups and networks have been set up to help elderly and vulnerable people who are unable to leave their houses. NHS workers are being given flowers in supermarkets and banners have appeared outside hospitals thanking them for the work they are doing. Many ‘key workers’ are putting their own health at risk in order to help others.
Most things point to people obeying the ‘rules’ from the government. Figures from Springboard, an agency which does high street customer profiling, found that last week 41% less people visited high street shops compared to this time last year. People are working at home when they can, unless their employer is forcing them to go in. The idea that individual actions are mainly to blame suits a capitalist establishment which would much prefer us to be divided and looking at each other rather than them. It can also have a big negative impact on our mental health, with predictions for depression, anxiety and paranoia to increase.
Not only has this crisis revealed that the capitalist system, after decades of neo-liberalism, is completely incapable of handling it - it is also laying bare its individualistic, competitive, dog-eat-dog nature. Whilst workers in the NHS are battling fires with not enough equipment and communities are coming together to look out for each other, government ministers are just pointing blame at “morons” (in the words of Piers Morgan) for going out to enjoy the sunshine over the weekend.