FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Austerity Has Weakened Our Ability to Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photograph Source: wandererwandering – CC BY 2.0

“I have delivered food parcels to four families this morning,” says Paula Spencer, who runs the community centre in Thanington, a deprived district on the outskirts of Canterbury. Two of the families had called for help because they had symptoms of the coronavirus, and two simply needed food to eat.

There are no signs of panic buying in Thanington, which has a population of about 2,700 and a Morrisons supermarket not far away. However, Nick Eden Green, a Lib Dem councillor for this part of Canterbury, says that the restraint is not due to people being unworried by shortages but because many “do not have the money for a bulk buy and, even if they did, they do not own cars in which to take away mass purchases”.

I spoke to Spencer by phone on Thursday afternoon and she was already sounding fairly desperate. She said that the problem is that food banks in Canterbury, on which many in Thanington have come to rely, are dependent on volunteers who tend to be older people or pensioners – because of their high vulnerability to the coronavirus, and in compliance with government advice, many of them have gone home.

This is not to say that panic buying is not going on. I visited the biggest local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday when most of the shelves were still well-stocked, aside from toilet roll, kitchen paper, tinned or packet soup, and coffee beans. But a friend who went there this morning reported “no bread, no vegetables, no fresh fruit, no pizzas – and very little beer.”.

Normal life is crumbling fast in Canterbury, considerably faster than the efforts by government, local authorities and volunteers to prop it up. A few hours after I had talked to Spencer, she sent me an anguished email: “I’ve had a stream of people in here since I spoke to you saying their employers are laying them off as of today. The lady who just left has three young children and works in the kitchen of a school which has said that she has to take four weeks unpaid leave as of today and if she becomes ill she won’t be paid sick leave. What are these people going to do? I’m feeling so powerless and inadequate and there’s no guidance from anywhere.”

It is going to get a great deal worse than this as the coronavirus advances into east Kent. A patient at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford has tested positive. “The three main hospitals in the area couldn’t cope before the crisis, and they certainly won’t be able to cope now,” a friend told me.

Those worst hit are going to be the many who have been victims of creeping destitution during a decade of austerity. Canterbury is a city where many jobs are in pubs, restaurants, hotels, or are part of the gig economy. “It makes much more sense from the point of view of the owners of these places to fire their workers now and re-hire them after the crisis than take out government loans that they will have to pay back,” say Alex Lister, a community organiser. He was speaking before the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced measures to help workers impacted by the spread of coronavirus.

It is easy enough to work oneself into a state of apocalyptic gloom about the future of the country and the world as the pandemic spreads, but there are also strong forces working to make sure that society goes on functioning and prevent its disintegration. Edd Withers is the founder and organiser of the online Canterbury Residents Group, which has 37,000 members on Facebook and is the highly influential platform where most people in the Canterbury area get their local news and communicate their opinions. He says that “the government keeps talking about ‘social distancing’ while what we should be advocating is ‘physical distancing and social solidarity’.”

To this end, Withers is intending to use the group’s Facebook page to bring thousands of people who want to volunteer their help in contact with those sectors that are most in need. Doing so is not easy: Lister, who used to work for a charity facing this issue, says that “coordinating volunteers is always a huge effort”. He believes the best approach is to utilise the policies and experience of charities that have already been down this road.

A crucial weakness in combating the virus is that a great deal will be demanded of municipal and state organisations that have been systematically degraded by the years of government-imposed austerity. All of these, from Canterbury Council to the NHS, have been run down and starved of money. Operational capacity cannot be resurrected overnight.

Organisations that will now be in the front line are crumbling further under the impact of the pandemic. A small example of this is the Citizens Advice Bureau in Canterbury, never more necessary than today, which will, understandably, no longer see people face to face, although it promises to return phone calls. The Thanington Neighbourhood Resource Centre, to give the community centre its official name, drew most of its income from renting out space for clubs and meetings: as this revenue dries up, it may have to cut its staff or close at a moment of maximum demand.

None of these local efforts, be they voluntary or municipal, will be able to carry the vastly increased burden coming their way without drawing on the resources of the central government. However, government decision-making lags behind events, clarity of direction is lacking, and the government seems to be trying to operate slow-moving, traditional and over-burdened methods of administration, such as applying for and receiving loans, that will not work in a crisis as calamitous and destructive as this one.

The closure of schools is a measure that has so many exceptions that it is unclear how many schools will, in fact, be able to close. One parent in Canterbury worked out that 68 per cent of the children attending his daughter’s nursery school were still eligible to do so because one or more of their parents were “key workers”. A high degree of confusion is inevitable when changes disrupting the lives of millions of people have to be implemented almost overnight, but there is a sense that decisions are being taken that have not been thought through.

Putting the country on a wartime footing is necessary – but, if this is to be more than bombast, it must mean giving clear orders and ensuring that they are obeyed. Anything less implies that the government has still not got to grips with the gravity of the catastrophe coming our way.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

July 02, 2020
John Kendall Hawkins
Biopic? Shirley, You Jest
Gary Macfarlane – Mike Garrity
Conservation Groups Sue Trump Administration to Halt Massive Logging in Steelhead Critical Habitat
Quincy Saul
Who Made the Plague?
July 01, 2020
Melvin Goodman
De-Militarizing the United States
Kenneth Surin
UK’s Labour Leader Sacks the Most Left-Wing Member of His Shadow Cabinet
Ruth Fowler
Then as Farce: the Commodification of Black Lives Matter
Kent Paterson
Crisis After Crisis on the Border
Rick Baum
The Pandemic and Wealth Inequality
Michael Welton
“Into the World of Bad Spirits”: Slavery and Plantation Culture
James W. Carden
The Return of the Anti-Antiwar Left
Dan Wakefield
Charles Webb Enters Heaven
Julian Vigo
A Call for Radical Humanism: the Left Needs to Return to Class Analyses of Power
Binoy Kampmark
A Trendy Rage: Boycotting Facebook and the Stop Hate for Profit Campaign
Michael D. Knox – Linda Pentz Gunter
As Monuments to War Generals Come Down, Let’s Replace Them with Monuments to Peace
Cesar Chelala
Attorney General William Barr’s Insomnia
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
Is Bolsonaro Plotting a Self-Coup?
Mandy Smithberger
COVID-19 Means Good Times for the Pentagon
Joe Emersberger
On Pablo Celi, Ecuador’s super shady “Auditor General”
June 30, 2020
James Bovard
Bill Clinton’s Serbian War Atrocities Exposed in New Indictment
Bianca Sierra Wolff – Lisa Knox
ICE is Leaving Immigrants to Die in Detention, and Retaliating When They Speak Out
Don Fitz
Should NYC’s Wall Street Be Renamed “Eric Garner St.?”
Chris Hedges
My Student Comes Home
Richard C. Gross
Obamacare Vulnerable
John Feffer
The Hatchet Man’s Tale: Why Bolton Matters
Thomas Knapp
Afghanistan Bounties: Pot, Meet Kettle (and Turn Off the Stove!)
Charles Reitz
Anti-Racist Engagement in the Kansas Free State Struggle, 1854-64: Horace Greeley, German 48-ers, and the Civil War Journalism of Karl Marx, 1861-62
Howard Lisnoff
A Student Murdered in Cold Blood and a Kids’ Bike Ride Through Queens, New York
David Swanson
Hey Congress, Move the Money
Aparna Karthikeyan
Memories of Pox, Plague, and Pandemics in Tamil Nadu
John Kendall Hawkins
Democracy Chasers in a Badly Injured Nation
Binoy Kampmark
Wasteful, Secret and Vicious: the Absurd Prosecution of Witness K and Bernard Collaery
Norman Solomon
Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee Could Defy “the Madness of Militarism” as Co-Chairs of the Democratic Convention’s Biggest Delegation
Jon Hochschartner
Imagining a Vegan Superman
Arianna Amehae
ESPN to Follow “Somebody’s Daughter” in Bringing International Attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Tragedy
CounterPunch News Service
An Osprey Forest in Humboldt County is Being Defended by Treesiters
June 29, 2020
Patrick Cockburn
The Blundering British Political Class has Shown the Same Incompetence in Both Fighting Wars and Coronavirus
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Heat Overwhelms Green Infighting Issues
Kathy Kelly
Battleground States
Eileen Appelbaum
The Pandemic Shows the Importance of Funding Early Childcare and Education Infrastructure
Gregory Elich
Will South Korea’s Moon Defy Trump and Improve Relations with North Korea?
Dean Baker
On the Recession, Stimulus and Economic Recovery
Sam Pizzigati
Defund the CEOs
Mitchel Cohen
Bolton and the Pandemic
Paul A. Passavant
Protest and the Post-Legitimation State
Ralph Nader
Congress Must Hold President Trump Accountable!
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail