For so many in the UK, this lockdown is inherently political

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed countless weaknesses in the state and the injustices hidden from the privileged. 17-year-old inner city activist Athian Akec calls for change and action.

by Athian Akec
25 March 2020, 6:00pm

Image via Twitter

Crises are inherently political. They expose weaknesses in the state, the injustices hidden from the privileged and the inequalities lived with everyday by many. Take Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in August 2005. It exposed the vast racial and class disparities of society. Wealthy people had the resources to evacuate, while their poorer, often ethnic minority neighbours, lacked the resources in order to do so. This reality is being echoed right now.

The coronavirus pandemic has flipped our world upside down. It’s forced us to stay home, placed massive pressure on the NHS and emptied our supermarket shelves. Unprecedented in its scale, the crisis is not only affecting hospitals, schools and councils, but the households of millions of people across the country who are worried about the loss of income they’ll face in the coming weeks and months. And while the government has promised to cover 80% of the income of those in salaried jobs, one group has been excluded: the self-employed.

At this time, sections of the economy are grinding to a standstill. As the Prime Minister places the country under lockdown, everything from small gigs to the Olympics have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed. This may spell out disappointment to some, but for others it means total financial ruin. Self-employed people are the backbone of many industries. They don’t just write books and make music, they work in construction, deliver food and drive cabs. Despite their enormous contribution to both the tax base and to the wider economy, the government is yet to clarify what their support will be in the face of this crisis.

At this time, it’s vital we take care, and support each section of our society. Self-employed people shouldn’t have to worry about filling the fridge or keeping the lights on. The pre-existing social safety net has been eroded by a decade of austerity. Those of us from working class communities have seen first hand the truly destructive consequences this has had -- witnessing too many friends, neighbours or colleagues plunged into unthinkable debt, with disastrous consequences.

For some self-employed people, self-isolation is impossible. Those working in the gig-economy have long risked losing their entire income during periods of illness -- even before this pandemic. For the Uber drivers, cleaners and Deliveroo workers -- who work tirelessly, for often little pay, to make your life convenient -- the lack of support places them between a rock and a hard place. Taking time off work and self-isolating comes at the grave cost of going hungry or losing your home. Our Universal Credit system, for those who qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), is notoriously complicated, bureaucratic and inefficient -- “fuelling poverty and food bank usage” as well as leaving claimants with mental health problems -- a revelation only just occurring to some.

When we look back at this time, do we want to remember being a part of a callous society leaving some out to bear the brunt of the crisis without any support? The alternative is to take a compassionate approach to those who’ve paid the greatest cost of the crisis. In times of crisis empathy must rise above individualism. We should look onto the selfless NHS nurses, doctors, pharmacists, hospital cleaners, caterers, ambulance drivers and others, working under stress, strain and pressure to save lives. To those piling into public transport because the immediate alternative is too terrifying a prospect. In supporting the self-employed, as they face a slash in their income, we can embody the spirit of empathy they embody.

In the longer term, this crisis will force a re-assessment of who’s important in society. Freelance, self-employed and precarious work cuts across class lines, and is only increasing as a sector. The Uber driver who gets you to your urgent appointment, the photographer who captures the most important moment of your life and the show-runner on your favourite TV shows are all potentially living paycheck to paycheck -- even if the size of that paycheck may differ. It’s time to consider how we can restore our social safety net, and allocate government support, in better recognition of the shape of the 21st century economy. We need to strengthen unions by standing in solidarity -- to bargain for better wages and increased workers rights for the self-employed

When the dust settles, hopefully in the not too distant future, it will become crystal clear that for decades the money to solve Britain's problems has been there. To avoid the further disenfranchisement of the already vulnerable, we need to invest in hospitals, eradicate child poverty, end homelessness and kick start a Green New Deal to tackle the climate crisis. Without these measures, we cannot ever truly protect ourselves from another pandemic tearing through our country and compromising millions of Britons’ safety.

But what practically can you do? Write to your MP demanding them to put pressure on the government to support self-employed people, sign a petition calling for action and join a mutual aid group in your local area helping to provide help to those in need.

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