Right now, the only thing staving off a collapse in the social order is the state | Aditya Chakrabortty | Opinion

In 1918 the Spanish flu was slaughtering tens of millions around the world, yet in Paris the highest death rates were concentrated along the richest boulevards. This baffled scientists ­– until they realised that it wasn’t wealthy people whose eyes were bleeding, whose skin was blackening, whose corpses were piling up. It was their servants.

While les riches enjoyed high ceilings and grand balconies, their domestics were crammed below stairs in dark, dirty, suffocating rooms­. They never stood a chance. One out of four women in Paris killed by the outbreak was a maid. As Laura Spinney notes in her history Pale Rider: “The flu may have been democratic … but the society it struck was not.”

Those words came to mind this morning, watching the TV coverage of London commuters going back to work. Here was the metropolitan working class ­– typically black, Asian, eastern European – squeezing themselves off a packed bus. Meanwhile, their political masters eased themselves out of their ministerial Jags and into Downing Street.

Countries have underlying health conditions too, easily preyed on by a virus. In the UK those chronic ailments include a government of bluffers, a society deformed by inequality and a public sector drained of both cash and confidence. They account for many of the 50,000 excess deaths over the past few weeks and the utter chaos in Westminster. You know the litany as well as I do: how Boris Johnson wasted precious weeks through lethal complacency; the multiple failures around equipment including ventilators and PPE; Matt Hancock’s Potemkin testing regime.

From Australia to Germany, politicians and newspapers are warning their people that, whatever happens, they really, really don’t want to end up like the Brits.

Still, it must be said: coronavirus has not ruined the UK; it has exposed the systemic ruin already here.

What does national ruin look like? It is Hancock urging industry to churn out ventilators, only to realise that his Tory party had long ago destroyed the manufacturing base. Or cabinet ministers feigning control, even as the outsourcing firms they depend on to buy the NHS essential gowns, gloves and masks fail again and again.

When one of the richest societies in human history has done less to protect its population from coronavirus than the Indian state of Kerala, that tells you that pandemic-hit UK’s problem is neither a lack of cash nor an absence of knowledge. It is an unwillingness at the top of government to see our society as a collective where everyone matters rather than, say, a herd.

These are the norms of today’s Britain, and they are simply not normal. Yet in England this week we begin the slow and risky stagger right back to the broken social settlement that landed us in this catastrophe. Because however botched and fudged the announcements on the exit from the lockdown, that is where we are going. Offered a return to normal life, who among us would not seize it? To hug family and friends again, to wander without worry, or to pop into a shop ­– just because? But that is not the normality demanded by Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker and other Tories on the hard right. Just listen to their language. For them, the priority is get things back to the way they were and to hell with the scientific advice.

Never mind that experts reportedly believe the UK is racking up 18,000 new infections every day, more than four times the government target. Get businesses humming! Run the NHS hot! Not a whisper about paying essential workers more, or funding public services. Nothing about fostering strategic industries or shortening supply chains for food or crucial supplies. No lessons learned, no regrets earned. On the contrary, many would be delighted by today’s leak of Treasury plans for a freeze in public sector pay.

This is the leave brigade and they have found their new cause: Get Exit Done. Even if you accept their premise, the argument still runs into two massive roadblocks. The first is that further waves of infection will very effectively derail the economy. At this moment any country’s economic strategy is essentially its health strategy, and its health strategy is to a large extent its public communications strategy, which is why this week’s national confusion over who can do what, where and with whom is so disastrous.

When in 1918 the Spanish flu hit America, cities from Pittsburgh to Seattle responded in very different ways. Some locked down for three weeks; others for 10. What was the result? Surely, your average Tory backbencher or puckish columnist would say, it’s obvious: the harder you hit the virus, the greater the harm to the economy. In fact, the opposite is true, according to analysis published this March by three economists, two of them at the US central bank. They find the economies of “cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively do not perform worse and, if anything, grow faster after the pandemic is over”.

The title of the economists’ study says it all: “Pandemics depress the economy, public health interventions do not.” I have not seen it quoted anywhere by the hard exiters or the supposedly science-hungry cabinet. Funny that.

The second big argument against the desire for economic normality is that no such thing exists right now. The UK is heading for its worst recession in three centuries, according to the Bank of England. The announcement this week by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, that he will extend his £60bn furlough scheme, paying most of the wages of 7.5 million private-sector staff until at least autumn is not only the right thing to do ­– switching off the programme could lead to very scary politics.

Millions who consider themselves temporarily idle employees, many with a mortgage, would plunge through a trapdoor into the ranks of the unemployed. The result of that huge collective drop in status, income and living standards could quite easily be a collapse in social order, and a rise in extremism.

That is the prospect hanging over us ­– and not just this year. The Bank forecasts that 2021 will be the year of the bounceback, the V-shaped recovery. Such a scenario seems to me utter fantasy. Pubs, cafe and theatres will shut by the score, many more businesses will run out of cash and time. At the end of the summer, the class of 2020 will leave school, graduate from university ­– and there will be scarcely any jobs for them.

For now and for a while to come, pretty much the only thing keeping the UK and the US ticking over is the state. The government is borrowing historic amounts to bail out households and prop up companies and those loans are being swallowed by another arm of the state, the central bank. This is the same strategy as we saw after the crash of 2008 ­– only this time moving much faster and at far greater scale. Whatever the fantasies of getting back to normal, there is nothing normal about this new world. And it will get stranger yet.

Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist

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