This is what an emergency looks like

The dark clouds are huge, says Maurice, and will not soon disperse; but is it too soon to look for silver linings?

Yesterday, 16 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suddenly ramped up measures to combat the spread of the Coronavirus in the UK, apparently because the researchers whose advice he is following suddenly changed their thinking. As the BBC’s health and science correspondent puts it: “Change course or a quarter of a million people will die”, appears to be the new line.

Some would say this move, welcome as it is, has come rather belatedly. Other countries appear to have grasped the need for emergency measures a good bit earlier than the UK. The World Health Organisation warns that even the more dramatic measures being taken are not enough: “we have not seen an urgent enough escalation in testing, isolation and contact tracing – which is the backbone of the response”.

Still, here we are. We have at last realised that this is what an emergency looks like.

When Naomi Klein published This Changes Everything, (see my review here) she was referring to the climate crisis, but for most people in Europe and America and other areas as yet relatively unscathed, not much did change. Probably this was because there was no single, worldwide event to mark the onset of a new era in which, indeed, everything would have to change.

We are, perhaps, witnessing such an event now, not climate related (or not directly so), but nonetheless a stark lesson in how to respond to an emergency. There must be Cobra meetings in Governments, Major Incident Teams mobilised in other institutions, scientific reports, clear and frequent communication (including daily briefings), updates on websites, advice on how to prepare, plans drawn up for keeping vulnerable populations supplied, detailed business continuity plans, careful thought about the implications for public transport – to say nothing of the impact on an already strained health service.

This is going to affect everyone and everything for an indefinite, but prolonged period. Many media outlets have focused on the huge turmoil in stock markets, and indeed, this may well be the beginning of a crash even worse than that of 2008. But it is the effect on ordinary workers and High Street businesses that should draw our attention, and an immediate government response – not least so called ‘gig’ workers, delivery people, short term contract workers, waiters, cleaners and so on, who are likely to be left worst off. And let’s not forget the original gig workers – those musicians who make their living playing in what are now likely to be empty bars.

We have been warned about likely death tolls, but we should be prepared for large scale job losses too. We need to start planning mitigation and suppression measures for that side of the pandemic, just as we have for the medical side. If governments can provide guarantees to the big banks, as they did in 2008, they can provide support for ordinary families, who may be facing prolonged hardship. This may be a good time to try out some form of basic income, or a version of People’s Quantitative Easing.

Lest this sound too radical, even the International Chamber of Commerce has joined forces with the WHO to respond to the current crisis, together calling on national governments everywhere to “adopt a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic”.

So yes, governments should do this for the current crisis. But we also need to do this as societies, as democracies, as neighbours, from this point on, in relation to much more than COVID-19.

The dark clouds are huge, and will not soon disperse; but if there is a silver lining to the spread of this virus, it is not only that governments have begun to adopt what John Cassidy calls ‘wartime economic thinking’, though this is a significant breakthrough in itself (demonstrating that governments can step up, intervene, mobilise resources and provide leadership in a way no other institution can match).

It is also that many people are already showing great generosity and solidarity – buying goods for foodbanks, phoning elderly neighbours to see if they need help, setting up mutual aid networks and so on. Singing to each other, from their balconies.

Such mutual aid and solidarity from neighbour to neighbour is the fertile soil from which progress grows. No one can predict the full range of consequences of the spread of the pandemic, but let’s do what we can to make sure that the generosity and solidarity continue to grow, even after the crisis eventually recedes.

After all, the still greater crisis already unfolding all around us in the shape of climate breakdown, and the ongoing emergency of systemic poverty in the global south – and even in communities within the so called ‘rich countries’; why do we need those food banks after all? – will require such a response in perpetuity.

We may not have the levers of state power, you and I, but the network we build in response to the virus will help show that we can live differently, we can work to ensure that no one is left behind, and we can build a new kind of democracy from the ground up.

Stay safe , eveyone, and take care of each other.

Maurice Macartney

17 March 2020

PS, happy St Patrick’s Day!

Updated 11 April 2020 to include link to ‘Everything must go’.