When the first case of Coronavirus was reported in the UK on February 28th, our course was not set in stone. Lives would be lost and “business as usual” would be disrupted, but a disaster was not inevitable. The virus was always going to make its way onto our shores, but mass fatalities, food shortages and socio-economic upheaval are very human side effects. What turns a hazard, such as a pandemic, into a disaster are the flaws that already exist within a country’s government and society, and the UK’s response to coronavirus has been no exception.
Playing up the ‘natural’ aspect of disasters can often be a way for governments to exempt themselves from blame as the death toll rises. The initial response from Boris Johnson’s government in many ways followed this same trend, with Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, promoting a ‘herd immunity’ approach. This would mean that the virus was allowed to run its ‘natural’ course, until it would (supposedly) reach its peak and stop infecting people. People would die, but it would be done in the name of ‘science’.
Although Johnson eventually did a U-turn, as long as he delayed the closure of pubs, shops and restaurants, not everyone would stay at home. The response from one elderly gentleman who was recently seen enjoying a lager in Wetherspoons says it all: “I’m just getting on with what I have to do.” In times of public health crisis, clear messaging can, as Labour MP Yvette Cooper explains “save lives”, and if the government fails in this duty, then this will be reflected in what happens next.
Disasters also show up the weaknesses in the social fabric of any society, which means that many will be hit hard economically. With the UK’s statutory sick pay set at £94.25, which is on average just 20% of a worker’s income, self-isolation has been a privilege which many cannot afford.
Although chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a package to cover 80% of wages has been widely welcomed, there is no doubt that the objections from those such as Iain Duncan Smith, who feared that people would be discouraged from returning to work, have lost us precious time. The Conservatives’ laissez-faire ideology left workers feeling more afraid of economic hardship than the virus itself. Inequality, poverty and power relations are brought to the forefront during disasters, and the policies followed by the government will either attempt to address these issues or exacerbate them. In the UK, this still remains to be seen.
Disasters will also highlight the effects of poor planning in a country’s public infrastructure. Nowhere is this more apparent during the Coronavirus pandemic that in the NHS, where after nearly ten years of austerity and cuts, our health system is on the brink of collapse. The pandemic has arrived at a time when there are over 100,000 vacancies in the NHS and because of lacking resources, NHS workers are not being tested, meaning that the staff we do have are forced to isolate for up to 14 days at a time.
As yet, the low mortality rate in countries such as Germany and South Korea has not been fully explained, but a practice that they both follow, which is not happening on anywhere near the same scale in the UK, is widespread testing for the virus across all age groups. While this may not prevent more deaths in the future, it has certainly bought these countries time to fully equip themselves should the situation worsen. Add to this the fact that Germany has far more ventilators and hospital beds than the UK, and we are faced with a situation where the NHS is not prepared now, let alone in the future.
Disasters are – at their core – a failure of governments to protect their citizens and they expose the power structures that are present within a given society. Now, we stand at a crossroads where our future could well be defined by economic recession and the inequalities which this will bring. The Coronavirus pandemic has shown some of the long-term systemic issues that the UK faces, and these will not go away when the virus eventually does.
But there is another alternative. Political analyst, Naomi Klein, has argued that crises can create space for an “evolutionary leap”. In the wake of this disaster, there will be the chance to reorganise and rebuild our broken society, one in which mutual aid is ingrained within our communities long after the Coronavirus. As we move forwards, we will see whether this makes us or breaks us.