The class politics of Covid-19

Richard Burgon MP writing in the Morning Star looks at the latest “Stay Alert” policy and argues that it is’s hard not to conclude that the lower-paid section of the working class is being treated as the canary in the mine…

And Aasma Day argues in the Huffington Post that Bame people are being thrown to the wolves as the government pursues is herd immunity tactic once again – at their expense.

The Covid-19 crisis is class politics laid bare

With working-class people being treated as the canary in the mine, now is the time to fight back, argues RICHARD BURGON MP

Morning Star, 14 May

US BILLIONAIRE Warren Buffet once famously said “There’s class warfare all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war and we’re winning.”

Those words came to mind as I watched Boris Johnson deliver his address to the nation this week. It was a thinly veiled declaration of class war.

For all his statement’s incoherence and inadequacies, Johnson’s strategic objective was to scrap the “Stay at Home” slogan and replace it with the potentially deadly “Stay Alert” message.

This change has been justified by ministers by the need to get the economy going again, though no doubt it would be more accurate to say it’s about getting the profits of the capitalist class up again.

To do so, those who can’t work from home — that is, primarily lower-paid workers — will have to risk using public transport and entering workplaces where health-and-safety regulations may not always be at the top of the bosses’ agenda.

With over 50,000 deaths already likely according to the experts, this is a reckless shift in policy that risks many more lives being lost unnecessarily.

The Prime Minister’s call for people to navigate this evidently dangerous situation by using their “common sense” ignores the real power dynamics at play in society.

Non-unionised workers on precarious contracts, desperately needing to pay the rent and living month-to-month, simply aren’t in a position to bargain with their bosses on equal terms. They need the state to step in for them — and in recent days Johnson has made clear that it won’t.

It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the lower-paid section of the working class is being treated as the canary in the mine, especially when official figures show that workers in manual jobs are already up to four times more likely to die than some higher-paid white-collar workers.

Deep inequalities, exacerbated by a decade of austerity and entrenched by four decades of neoliberalism, are increasingly evident in the body count of this crisis.

Black people are significantly more likely to die with coronavirus, while women disproportionately make up the low-paid social-care workers who have one of the highest death rates

But if this is class war from Johnson, then the backlash from the public, the labour movement, the First Ministers of other nations and even from sections of business shows that this is not a settled matter.

Politics and organisation will determine the outcome over the coming months — potentially saving many lives. There is everything to fight for.

In fact, the lockdown itself and the increase in testing levels — however inadequate it remains — was the product of public pressure.

Likewise, the decision of the government to continue with furlough at 80 per cent is a big victory for the unions who fought for it.

There will be many more battles along the way and it will be for the left — inside and outside parliament, in the Labour Party, in the trade unions and in social movements — to build the broadest unity over the next period to win the demand of no return to work until it is safe to do so.

One coming battle is over schools, and I fully support the National Education Union’s five tests to ensure that schools only reopen when it’s safe for children, their families and staff to do so.

heir petition has already secured over 350,000 signatures. It’s great to see Labour’s front bench fully backing this pledge.

As well as the key public-safety demands for mass testing, tracking and tracing and for PPE for all workers, there are urgent economic demands.

For example, this week I called on the Chancellor in the Commons to guarantee that furloughed minimum-wage workers get the full national minimum wage. Too many are paid just 80 per cent of it, even though rents, bills and food prices haven’t fallen.

Outrageously, the Chancellor said that to plug the gap those workers should find another job — in the middle of an economic crisis!

Likewise, rent suspensions need to be higher up the political agenda in light of the looming crisis for renters who are accruing huge debts as the economy contracts.

As well as these immediate demands, we on the left need to be mapping out our vision for what a post-coronavirus society will look like.

I very much agree with Labour leader Keir Starmer’s message that “After all this, all the sacrifice and the loss, we can’t go back to business as usual.” We have to create a new normal.

In that spirit, we have to be bold in demanding that now is the time for reversing the trampling of workers’ rights of the past 40 years.

We have to fight for an end to the gross inequalities in our society that have resulted from a huge shift in the share of the economy away from labour to capital.

We have to be exposing how the free-market model left our social care and other key sectors in a weakened state of preparedness, and demand that they be made a public service.

And given the economic crisis that is to come, we need to be winning the argument for a huge investment in public works to kickstart the economy and prepare for the next crisis, be it social, health or environmental.

It will also mean a new foreign policy. Now is the time for greater support for multilateral bodies like the World Health Organisation and for a foreign policy based on co-operation.

Instead, we see a clear push for Britain to get caught up in the hostile posturing towards China that Trump is engaging in as part of his election campaign.

Johnson’s words and actions this week made it clear that the coronavirus crisis is class politics laid bare. On the left, we have to ensure that it is our class that wins.

Coronavirus: BAME People ‘Thrown To The Wolves’ With New Back-To-Work Guidelines

Some feel the government is urging people to return to work as a “creeping herd immunity” tactic putting minority workers disproportionately at risk.

Aasma Day, HuffPost, 15 May 2020

New government guidelines urging those who can’t work from home to return to work will disproportionately impact Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people who are already at greater risk of dying from coronavirus, campaigners are warning.

Boris Johnson, in his speech on Sunday night, actively encouraged those who cannot work from home to return to their jobs this week, while avoiding public transport where they can.

However, campaigners say the new measures will hit BAME communities hardest as they are less likely to be in jobs where they can work from home and will be forced to use public transport if they are pressured to return to work.

People from minority ethnic groups are also more likely to be in occupations where they are at higher risk of being exposed to Covid-19 – jobs such as care workers, security guards, bus drivers and taxi drivers.

Ethnic minority groups are at greater risk of dying from coronavirus than the white population according to the latest analysis by the Office for National Statistics.

Anti-racist campaigners say the government’s new policy encouraging people to return to work is particularly dangerous for BAME people and have described the easing of lockdown measures as “premature”, “reckless” and “irresponsible”.

Sabby Dhalu, co-convener for Stand Up To Racism, told HuffPost UK she believes the new guidelines are “herd immunity by stealth” and she fears it will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases which will disproportionately affect people from BAME communities.

Sabby Dhalu, co-convener for Stand Up To Racism

“These new guidelines are throwing people from BAME communities under the bus and the government is failing them by putting their lives at risk,” said Dhalu.

“The government’s easing of the lockdown is reverting back to the policy before lockdown which was creeping herd immunity and letting this virus rip through communities.

“People have been put in the very difficult position of choosing to make an income by risking their life going back to work and no one should be put in that position.

“Any further increase in the death and infection rate will carry on disproportionately impacting BAME communities.”

She said she felt the lockdown measures should have been stronger and easing them now is “way too premature”.

“It is herd immunity by stealth by urging sections of the workforce to return to work without enforcing any health and safety measures,” she added.

“Many workers not working from home will be forced to use public transport and this will impact on BAME communities harder.”

Stand Up To Racism is calling for a public inquiry to expose the neglect of BAME communities amid the coronavirus pandemic by looking into issues such as institutional racism, and socio-economic factors such as poverty.

Charity So White, a campaign group led by people of colour tackling institutional racism within the charity sector, has been documenting the various ways BAME communities have been disproportionately impacted throughout the coronavirus crisis – including in health, housing and employment.

Yasmin Mahmoudi, an organiser at Charity So White

Organiser Yasmin Mahmoudi told HuffPost UK the group is alarmed by what the easing of lockdown could mean for BAME workers.

She said the government’s revised “Stay Alert” slogan shunts responsibility onto individuals for protecting themselves against the virus and that more people will now be faced with the stark choice between keeping themselves safe and economic survival.

I feel people from BAME backgrounds are being thrown to the wolves.Y

“I feel people from BAME backgrounds are being thrown to the wolves,” said Mahmoudi.

“These are people in society who already have the least and face so many disadvantages and now they are facing pressure to return to work.

“A lot of the jobs done by BAME people are public-facing roles with interaction which can’t be done from home.

“It is a class issue as well, as people from BAME communities tend to disproportionately be in lower paid jobs.

“We condemn any plans to ease lockdown while it is still unsafe to do so and whilst protections for workers and the most marginalised members of society remain woefully inadequate.

“It is as if the government is prioritising returning the economy to business as usual at the risk of these BAME workers’ lives.”

Professor Azeem Majeed, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College, London, told HuffPost UK that people who are least able to work at home have the highest Covid-19 death rates among people of working age and that these are the people being encouraged to return to work.

They are roles in which BAME people are over-represented.

He believes a rigorous occupational health risk assessment is essential for everyone before they return to work to reduce their risk of infection.

Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care and head of the department of primary care and public health at Imperial College, London

“I think for any job, we need thorough risk assessments before people return to work,” he said. “This is a duty of care.

“People’s roles need to be assessed and it needs to be made sure they will not be put at risk. Perhaps those at high risk can be put in roles which are not public-facing.”

The first thing we need to do is get the infection rate down in the community and then there needs to be testing and contact tracing.Professor Azeem Majeed, Imperial College, London,

Majeed believes the weeks in lockdown have been “wasted” as he feels a proper contact tracing system should have been put in place long ago.

“The first thing we need to do is get the infection rate down in the community and then there needs to be testing and contact tracing.”

Marsha de Cordova, shadow women and equalities secretary and MP for Battersea, said there was “appallingly little mention of them” or the equalities impact in the government’s Covid-19 plans and recovery strategy.

She told HuffPost UK: “Any gaps in the government’s safety at work guidelines will mean low-paid workers with the poorest employment rights are most at risk.

“This includes many BAME workers who are disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 crisis.

“We have already seen how Covid-19 has exposed and amplified social and economic inequalities in our society.

“The government must ensure that employers work with trade unions to maintain safe workplaces that are adequately risk assessed so that all communities are protected.”

More than 70 BAME British figures have united to call for an independent public inquiry into the disproportionate deaths from Covid-19 among Britons from minority backgrounds.

Signatories include industry experts and people in public life such as Phil Wang, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Saloum N’jie, Bonnie Greer, Farooq Chaudhry, Matt Henry, Shaun Escoffery and Jermaine Jackman.

They have written to the prime minister calling for more transparency and for an inquiry to be broadened to include a focus on the levels of exposure BAME staff are facing and whether employers are fulfilling their duty of care.

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is preparing to mount a legal challenge on behalf of its members and says it is crucial that workers such as couriers, cleaners and delivery drivers are protected from the virus.

Jason Moyer-Lee, IWGB general secretary, said to HuffPost UK on the issue of BAME workers: “The prime minister has acknowledged the danger of taking public transport and going into work, but has nevertheless encouraged those who have no alternative to do so.

“The impact of this will not be spread evenly through society – it will disproportionately hit low-paid and BAME workers.

“That’s why the IWGB has been campaigning and taken urgent legal action against the government to protect incomes and health and safety as much as possible.”

Public Health England told HuffPost UK it is currently working on a rapid research review into factors impacting health outcomes for Covid-19. This work includes reviewing disparities in health outcomes of coronavirus between different ethnic groups.

A Public Health England spokesperson said: “The data on Covid-19′s impacts on different communities is rapidly evolving.

“Actions to address these inequalities do not rest with one agency but require collaborative actions at multiple levels of society.

“PHE’s role of providing guidance and data to inform and support local action is an important part of the response and exactly why we are undertaking a research review at this time.”

Aasma Day North of England Correspondent, Senior Editor, HuffPost UK

Comments (3)

  • RH says:

    Once again, the essentially well-intentioned fall into the trap of endorsing the ‘Panic!’ narrative. It is that narrative that is dooing far more daage than the virus.

    The issue re. the BAME population may have some connection with susceptibility to certain treatment for this specific virus. But beyond that, the inequalities in health and related variables are no different in this epidemic than in any other – and entirely predictable.

    One thing is for sure – that ‘Panic!’ narrative, with it’s dire socio-psychological consequences will also be attacking people in a socially biased way.

    Same old, same old.

  • James Hall says:

    What’s all the worry – we can have the cleaner and the nanny back, that’s what counts.

  • TM says:

    Very essential Reports. Both of them. So relieved that voices such as RB are in the LP. The Unions must hold firm to their demands for safety. If we are rightly concerned by the growing crisis of mental health then we must be aware of the impact on families by the Loss of loved ones.
    RB’s opening quote has absolute resonance. The statistics bear it out. What more proof do we require for the pressing need for Sysyem change. Sadly, it seems, there’ll be many more lonely deaths before the clear message that Capitalism not just neo liberalism cannot/will not protect this planet and all the creatures that live on it.
    And it is the vulnerable that obviously are in the most immediate danger of “taking it on the chin”.
    There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

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