Cath Holland questions the ‘we’re all in this together rhetoric’ of coronavirus by looking at the social impacts of the pandemic through the lens of those on the borderline of poverty – the many who’re working night and day to keep the country afloat.
Not long ago you’d have had the piss ripped out of you something chronic for marching briskly about Birkenhead with a paper mask covering your face. And yet now, a solid third of people I see out and about look like anxious surgeons – from the neck up, anyway – while picking up milk or stretching legs for state-permitted exercise.
In mere days, public life changed beyond recognition. We’ve all become obsessed by the remarkably quaint British pastime of walking, but on the flipside the big supermarket in the town has crash barriers and security guards. Once through the door it’s impossible to avoid a voice over the tannoy insisting “we’re all in this together”. Shuffling around the shop playing a bad game of dodgems with fellow shoppers, as we all observe the two metre social distance rule, the insistence is made more times than I can count. I wonder if the person repeating it actually believes what she’s saying.
Boris Johnson booking an 8.30pm telly slot addressing the nation – patriotic punch to the chest there – dropping in Your Country Needs You sentiments, was a shock to the system. His father, Stanley, goes one further when commenting that his son ‘almost took one for the team’ after Johnson’s stay in ICU. The notions of us all enlisting, metaphorically of course, to help with the war effort by staying at home brings with it Second World War psychology, when the public’s iron front gates and railings were removed to help make munitions. Mystery hangs over what happened with much of that harvested iron. Over a million tonnes were collected by September 1944, and still rumours persist that as much as three quarters were discarded and left to rust. A generation’s front gates vanished.
Now we’re in coronavirus lockdown, those old sentiments from 70 years hence return, and get cranked up to 11. BBC News runs a short, cheery item about shelf stackers and cleaners and elevates them via the use of bold language to “minimum wage heroes” and members of a “hidden army”. Their fellow low-paid – the delivery drivers bringing online food orders, care assistants – are all key and essential workers now. The phrase ‘key worker’ has a nice ring to it. It was days ago when we viewed these women and men as unskilled, low-skilled at best, with pay levels to match. With cleaners getting 15 minutes of fame, it feels like we’re all in it together and at the same time it absolutely bloody well does not.
The next item on the news is trauma at its most middle class. Light hearted advice on how to, somehow, survive the pandemic without access to the services of a hairdresser. At this point, the stay at home guidelines are starting to emphasise the fractures and the inequality we have across Merseyside and beyond. As the days progress, the divide gets bigger and it’s showing itself more. When lockdown first happened, people nodded at strangers in the street and wished them a good morning/afternoon, like in the 1950s. That doesn’t happen anymore; it’s more a “keep your distance” and “where the hell are you going in that car?”
The absence of free school meals during school closures means poorer children may miss out on significant daily nutrition. Even as I’m writing this, the government still hasn’t announced its plans for those eligible for free meals. Wirral Council has introduced a voucher scheme in the meantime. Parents can buy food with the vouchers in local supermarkets to feed their children, a bridging of the gap the government should have predicted. The queue lengths outside different supermarkets vary; with lower-priced ones there is invariably a wait due to more people needing food, and the one-in, one-out policy to prevent overcrowding and virus transmission, but with the more expensive stores it’s a case of just walking in. Being poor is exhausting, it takes more effort just to live.
To be kind is something we’re all meant to think more about doing and it is true there is a lot of kindness about. Yet in these lockdown times, much like Christmas, we give our comfortable lives a smug glaze as we conduct our social lives online. It’s easy to mock this new, weird, mad shit world. I myself was ready to comment on Facebook that just because technology allows anyone to perform online gigs it doesn’t necessarily mean they should. Stopped myself just in time, though it hurt and my fingers itched to type it out. They still do. It’s killing me. Giving thanks for being able to write it here, in a more formal setting.
The comedians are in force on Facebook though, sharing a picture of an idyllic sunny beach scene with a palm tree and beautiful blue and thinking they be hilarious “with less travel, less pollution and less human activity the earth is healing and recovering. This was Birkenhead this morning”. Birkenhead is replaced with whatever working class town or area with high levels of poverty is near to the poster geographically. Near, but not too near. Because poverty stinks and if you get it in your nostrils it’s getting too close for comfort. Reflect on your loss of personal freedoms if you want, but remember this: donating to foodbanks is a kind move if you can afford it, but it doesn’t absolve the giver of sneery sins. Punching up in humour is fun and a great British tradition – there I go again – but downwards, not so much.
As my own world shrinks, living on my own with two heroically loyal cats, more books than I’ll ever read and a library of albums to enjoy, plus so much to write about, I still find myself obsessively searching out any sort of greenery. The plants in my own garden seem to be trolling me, any budding spring leaves and flowers on a go slow, so I make do with the grass verge at the top of my street, the clutter of council-planted daffodils on the main road or the long hike up to the park. Green shoots of optimism were mentioned on the news, though it’s a couple of days since anyone mentioned those.
Access to green spaces, pretty flowers, having a full belly and the ability to work from home is more than a privilege. Key workers don’t have all this. They go to work on terrible pay and risk their health to boot. Key workers on minimum wage are at the coalface, job roles expanded to accommodate the new circumstances, dealing with the public.
We can all indulge in some black humour to get us through. I was always convinced that if the world was ending tomorrow, the Skeleton Records shop would still be stubbornly open selling rows of Hawkwind and ELO vinyl. Yet here we are, the door with the trippy skeleton painted on it locked right up. It’s a strange world indeed. Oxton Road, which boasts a new Lidl attracting the four-wheel drive families from the posh parts of Wirral, leads into Birkenhead town centre. It’s a length of social housing, empty boozers and independent shops that’ve been there for years. A lad bellows to a woman by the fruit and veg shop. He can’t get hold of his dealer, he laughs. He’s gonna dig out his old bongs and scrape off the residue and smoke or snort that. “Stay safe,” she laughs as well, keeping the distance between them way more than the law abiding two metres.
Lockdown is no fun for anyone, but life is grimmer for poor people. Will the world gain more empathy for the poor, I can’t help but ask myself? Universal Credit has taken on a new reputation, after all. A fortnight or a lifetime ago, depending how you view it, UC was all about avoiding sanctions and getting by. A million new Universal Credit claimants over the last two weeks have or will discover the benefit isn’t enough to live on. Paid monthly to help people learn how to budget, because eating, clothing themselves, warming their homes, keeping clean on the pitiful sum is doable if you’re thrifty, right? The world is learning, slowly, that claimants are not trousering fat wads, don’t drive Ferraris or spend thousands of pounds on Christmas presents for their kids. The Daily Mail, and just about everyone else, has been lying to you.
Whether changes happen after this pandemic is over is food for thought. If cleaners and carers are heroes, then surely it follows they look forward to secure futures, our newfound knowledge ensuring our support. Will zero hours contracts be a thing of the past? Will UC be ditched? Are we willing to pay for our online food deliveries so the driver who kept you fed during these (all together now) unprecedented times is financially secure, or make sure one’s weekly cleaner gets holiday, maternity, sick pay? Freshly delivered of shiny new key worker status they may be, but once this pandemic is over, will they revert back to unskilled, unseen? Will we let them? Because, if we really, honestly truly think they’re so valuable, after we’ve lashed our face masks in the bin and started talking to people again, they’re going to need way more than a blink and you’ll miss it package on the 10 o’clock news as a reward.