The famous ‘Boris Letter’ arrived through the letterbox of Wee Ginger Towers this morning. There was me wondering why everyone else seemed to have received it, but not me, and thinking that it might well be because the powers that be knew that the missive was destined for the bin as soon as it arrived. Or possibly as toilet paper, seeing as how that’s the new currency in the coronavirus age.
Somehow it’s deeply unreassuring to be told by the Great Fnaugh Fnaugher that “it is with that great British spirit that we will beat coronavirus and we will beat it together”. He was referring to the thousands who have volunteered to help the NHS and vulnerable people during this crisis, as though somehow it was especially or peculiarly British for people to want to help those worse off than themselves during a time of need. And while empathy may not be a value that we tend to associate with the Conservative party, it’s a human value, and a human response, not a British one. There are similar volunteer schemes in every country which has been affected by this epidemic.
For example in Spain you can volunteer to make face masks, to go shopping for vulnerable people or the elderly, to send messages of support to people who are enduring the lockdown alone. Retired doctors and medical professionals are returning to work in Spain’s hospitals and clinics, as are medical and nursing students. As of 22 March, more than 50,000 retired medical professionals in Spain had signed up to return to work – and they themselves are older people who are more at risk from the virus, yet they are not hesitating to go back to the wards. “Nuestro deber es ayudar”, said one – It’s our duty to help. In doing so, they’re not demonstrating “that great Spanish spirit”, they’re simply responding as human beings with a fully functioning sense of compassion, empathy, and care for their fellows. And that’s exactly what those who are volunteering in the UK are doing. They are not proving some patriotic point. They’re proving a human one, a humane one.
So if we could keep the British jingoism out of the current situation, that would go a long way to help, thank you. All the more so since there is a considerable segment of the population in this part of the UK who don’t particularly feel any emotional attachments to the British state and who might be angered by a British government that was coopting their efforts in the hope of proving some spurious British nationalist point.
Naturally the double standards of British nationalism would be on full display if a Scottish independence supporter was crass enough to claim that by helping out in this crisis we were demonstrating “Scottish spirit”, or to imply that by lending a helping hand volunteers in Scotland were showing values that were somehow unique to Scotland. The British nationalists who hail the supposed “British spirit” of the volunteers, and who go out to clap for Boris, would be the first to complain about divisive nationalists. Can you imagine the reaction of the British press if Nicola Sturgeon said in a press conference that volunteers were showing “great Scottish spirit”? She got pelters just because the Scottish volunteering scheme had NHS Scotland in its name.
Likewise it’s not at all reassuring to be told by Matt Hancock, who is on furlough from his job as cabin crew with a budget airline because no one can go on a package holiday right now, that Boris Johnson will pull through his own illness because “he’s a great fighter”. I certainly hope that Boris Johnson pulls through, but do Matt Hancock’s words not somehow imply that those who don’t survive this terrible disease die because they’re not fighting it enough? Because they haven’t displayed enough of that “great British spirit” that the likes of the Conservatives constantly harp on about?
No, those whose health outcomes end in tragedy fight the virus just as much as anyone who is infected does. It’s just that some are blessed by the lottery of inherited wealth or privilege to have had a better life than others. Some have not had to spend their working lives working for low pay in harsh conditions which have wrecked their health. Some have had access to good food, good housing, and good education that not everyone enjoys. Some have not had to endure the bleak hopelessness of poverty that leads so many to self-medicate on drugs and alcohol and in the process destroy their good health.
Because the truth is that we’re not all in this together. We’re told that this virus does not discriminate, and in one sense that is true. All other things being equal, every human being has an equal chance of being infected. But all other things are not equal, the virus spreads within human societies which are characterised by discrimination and inequality, and that means that some groups within the population are worse affected than others. Poor people typically live in far worse conditions than the likes of Matt or Boris. They live in overcrowded, poorly heated homes, they have poorer diets, they are far more likely to suffer from other health problems. That makes them far more likely to suffer a more severe form of the disease than those who are lucky enough to be well fed, well housed, and financially comfortable. We see that inequality in those who have middle class jobs which allow them to work from home, while those who live from pay cheque to pay cheque in lower paid jobs are now left without an income, and are worried about how to feed themselves and their families and how to stave off homelessness.
Recent figures from the USA and England and Wales make for sobering reading. We are not all in this together, the poor, the marginalised, the disadvantaged, black people and other ethnic minorities, are all far more likely to succumb to severe symptoms of coronavirus than those who enjoy greater privilege. In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland a recent study from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre found that out of 2000 patients with coronavirus symptoms in intensive care, over than a third are from ethnic minorities, more than double the proportion in the population as a whole. See : https://www.icnarc.org/DataServices/Attachments/Download/76a7364b-4b76-ea11-9124-00505601089b In the USA, African Americans – who typically have lower wages, poorer living conditions, and poorer health than their white counterparts – are far more likely to succumb to the virus. In the state of Louisiana, 32% of the population is African American but they make up 70% of those who have died from coronavirus. That same pattern is repeated across other states.
In Scotland, although we do not yet have a detailed breakdown of the figures, it would not be surprising if those who die during this epidemic are disproportionately working class, from poorer communities, and who live in poorer housing with poorer life expectancy overall. They are not more likely to die because they have not fought the virus sufficiently. Members of poor communities fight every single day of their lives for things that those of us who are more privileged take for granted. They have to make decisions that those of us who are better off are never confronted with – decisions like choosing to spend their last couple of pounds on food and nappies for the baby, or to pay to keep some gas and electricity on in the house so that it’s warm on a cold winter’s day. These are the communities that this virus is going to strike the hardest, and they are the communities which fight and struggle and survive in ways which the likes of Matt Hancock never have to worry about.
So let’s have less of the jingoism, less of the language of war. Let’s remember that we’re not all in this together, because a virus isn’t an equal opportunities killer in a society that’s founded in inequality and the privilege of a minority. When we do surmount this crisis, as we will, that’s the real fight that we need to face – the fight against inequality, social injustice, and unfair privilege. Because what we are seeing now is that inequality kills. That’s why I am fighting for an independent Scotland. Because it’s through independence that we have a better chance of overcoming the inequality, injustice, and discrimination that is ingrained in the very fabric of the British state.
And finally, because we could all do with some cheering up during these difficult times…
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