Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are dying more. We probably don’t know all the reasons, but we know some of them. It involves frontline exposure to the virus. There are links to poverty and lack of opportunities for distancing. There may be cultural factors, such as intergenerational living and gathering for festivals and other significant family or community events. (Shame on the rest of us for having let such acts of coming together, in general, slide away from us.) There may be underlying medical conditions caused by stress and the challenges of living as discernibly ‘other’ in a complacently White world. …If you live with fear on a daily basis, it changes how you manage fear. I have a personal theory that experience of trauma corrupts one’s immune system and makes it more likely that one’s body will unleash itself on the virus rather than let it take its course. By all accounts, that is one of the things that kills us.
It’s not just BAME people who are not ‘in it together’ in lockdown. In England (not the rest of the UK) and in some US states (more than others), some workers have no right to protect themselves. Their roles are needed and they are being implored to come to work, covid-ready or not.
Some of that pressure relates to skill – nurses and doctors have never been more visibly loved and celebrated for their willingness to care. Health workers work longer and harder, as the rest of us slow down and puzzle over how to put together a zoom call.
They are not the only frontline workers. Delivery drivers have greater job security than usual, supplying supermarket shopping or takeaway suppers. Bus drivers go through the motions on empty buses. Cleaners and porters work their way through office blocks that no one will visit till there are newly spaced-out and sanitized pitches. Emergency services respond to crises that reflect the times: domestic abuse situations; breathing difficulties; neighbours alerting them to lockdown violations.
And no one can really blame the care staff with no job security and on minimum wage if they decide that they do not want to face life-threatening conditions. It seems right, in retrospect, that they should not want to be the agents that transfer the virus between patients and between residential homes. But to understand that, one needs to know that their jobs are degraded to the point where they do not experience their ‘care’ work as humane. Their reluctance says more about their conditions of employment than their moral compass, however horrifying. Where staff members were offered adequate protective equipment by the management, the opportunity to work in one place and proper respect, there were fewer illnesses for both residents and carers.
Poverty in Britain is not just the preserve of the unemployed, though it doesn’t help. Poverty is associated with poor working conditions. And, now, poverty is a state of having to go to work without knowing if it is safe to do so.
Perhaps it was never safe to work for another, just safer now that the old industrial jobs (when losing a limb was commonplace and didn’t matter to the owner) are over. Yet some have more control over how health and safety rights are implemented than others. (And, quietly, while we worry about masks and aprons, our Government is planning how to give those rights away for all of us.)
Poverty is also now associated with losing your job. Another 1.2M people turned to the benefits system as lockdown began and the food banks were overwhelmed. The need for support escalated. Financial support through Universal Credit was extended but it was never easy to use and it hasn’t got any better.
To sit at home with a working digital link to the outside world and a salary is to be in a new class, one that must look after the many precariat workers who were just like us a few days ago. Physical therapists and the cultural sector have been particularly hard hit. But most small enterprises continue with little idea how to navigate. We are newly patrician, paying ahead for things to collect when production and services start back up, making donations for online theatre. We are compassionate, but we are not ‘in it together’.
Gender. Last, but by no means least. Women are likely to be doing the caring and cleaning. It makes little difference whether they are also working. Women are, as a gender, charged with many of the house-making duties that have fallen back upon households. Women are doing the bulk of the home-schooling where there are children of school age at home all day. Women are more likely to manifest anxiety, and, though I can’t find a study on this, seemingly less likely to throw themselves into their work and snap at their partners.
Without staring these factors in the face, we perpetuate them. And in doing so, we make it harder to improve what comes after.
No justice. No peace.