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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.

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

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