With the COVID-19 death toll still rising, Tory health secretary Matt Hancock recently threatened to “take further measures” to tighten lockdown rules.
The threat has been issued as a deterrent against “a minority of people” violating social distancing rules in public spaces, by socialising and sunbathing in parks. Park closures have already taken place in at least three London boroughs, and a further 17 have warned that closures will take place if guidelines are not followed.
This has been a cause of some controversy. In an interview with Sky News, for example, presenter Sophie Ridge went after Hancock on this point:
“You say it’s unbelievable that some people are breaking the rules…[but] the weather is very lovely this weekend, not everyone has a garden…lots of people will feel they’re making a big sacrifice here, particularly those people living in overcrowded accommodation, those people who perhaps have mental health issues, those people who may not even feel safe at home.”
The health secretary responded in his usual robotic and patronising tone:
“The fastest way to come through this crisis, and to save lives, and protect the NHS...is to follow the guidance and to stay at home unless you’ve got one of the four reasons [essential shopping, medical supply collections, exercise, key work].”
At first glance, Hancock’s answer might seem quite reasonable. After all, protecting the country from the pandemic should surely be the government’s highest priority.
On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the Tories’ main priority when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak is not securing the nation’s wellbeing, but protecting the profits of their friends in big business.
Cramped and crowded
For working-class communities, the pandemic represents a social crisis, as well as an economic and medical one.
Cramped living spaces, such as flats, make quarantine living a highly stressful situation. One Leeds resident, Tracy Stubely, for example, told Leeds Live that she was having to remain inside her two-bedroom apartment with her husband, niece, and grand niece for two weeks because her niece is self-isolating with a fever.
Tracy described the situation as a “nightmare”. “It wouldn’t be so bad if we had a garden for the little’un,” she said. “I just don’t know what we’re going to do.”
For working families, the situation is especially bad. Parents are being put in an impossible situation, having to juggle working from home with childcare. This effectively means a doubling of workloads, at the same time as receiving less pay than ‘normal’ times.
The situation is also untenable for many key workers, who have reportedly been struggling to find childcare. “One nursery owner said there was little incentive for some to stay open due to the costs of paying staff to look after only a handful of children,” the BBC recently reported.
For school-age children, COVID-19 represents a serious blow to their education. Even in the best of times, children from the lowest-income families are less likely to achieve positive school attainment. Now, with parents unable to afford private online tuition, children are having to contend with large online classes. And even these are often unavailable, due to difficult domestic circumstances, sharing of computers and laptops within a family, or poor internet connections.
Torturing the vulnerable
Workers and youth are not the only ones affected. Much of the country’s elderly were already experiencing crushing loneliness prior to the outbreak. Now, the most vulnerable (and often technologically impaired) are forced to experience the biggest social crisis in decades completely alone.
Perhaps worst of all, for those who suffer from domestic violence, quarantine living is a genuine hell on earth. This is already an issue that disproportionately affects the poor and precarious.
“The UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, Refuge,” states one Guardian article, “has reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline in a single day, while a separate helpline for perpetrators of domestic abuse seeking help to change their behaviour received 25% more calls after the start of the Covid-19 lockdown.”
“Counting Dead Women has got to a total of 16 domestic abuse killings in the last three weeks. We usually say there are two a week, that looks to me like five a week, that’s the size of this crisis.” @VeraBaird @CountDeadWomen https://t.co/8wW9PT0GmY— EVAW Coalition (@EVAWuk) April 15, 2020
Compounding all of these social problems is the impact quarantine will have on people’s mental health. A study of the impact of the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2004 found that:
“The 129 quarantined persons who responded to a web-based survey exhibited a high prevalence of psychological distress. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression were observed in 28.9% and 31.2% of respondents, respectively. Longer durations of quarantine were associated with an increased prevalence of PTSD symptoms. Acquaintance with or direct exposure to someone with a diagnosis of SARS was also associated with PTSD and depressive symptoms.”
Make the rich pay for this crisis!
It is clear, therefore, that access to open space, particularly for the most vulnerable in society, should not be treated as a ‘privilege’ to be revoked. It might be easy for Hancock and his Conservative chums to hide away in their mansion bunkers. But working families forced to live in cramped conditions do not have access to the luxury of private space.
It is all the more hypocritical for the Tories to point the finger at a so-called ‘irresponsible minority’ spending time in public parks, when the government is turning a blind eye to unscrupulous bosses who are attempting to keep non-essential production, retail, and construction sites open.
If the Conservatives were really interested in protecting the public from the virus, they would not be threatening to take away essential access to public space, or attempting to place the blame and burden for the spread of the disease onto ordinary people.
What they would do, instead, is enforce proper contagion measures where it is essential to do so: shutting down construction sites and other non-essential production; planning the economy in order to dramatically increase the supply of ventilators; and fully-funding the NHS in order to provide doctors and nurses with PPE and testing.
Hancock’s threats, therefore, are further evidence that the chief concern of the Tories is protecting the interests and profits of the capitalists, not the lives of ordinary people.
Instead of targeting the elites who are failing to save lives, the Tory government would rather target workers, the elderly, and the vulnerable - many of whom are already making tremendous sacrifices and efforts to help fight the virus and cope with this drastic situation.
We must state it loud and clear: the responsibility for the coronavirus crisis lies with the bosses and the Tories - and the rotten system that they defend - not sunbathers seeking a moment’s break from the torture of quarantine.