The coronavirus pandemic, rather than demonstrating that ‘we are all in it together’, has shone a glaring light on the grotesque social inequalities that disfigure 21st-century Britain under capitalism.
Not only are some regions more plague-ridden than others (for example compare the north-east with the south-east), but within that there are very localised pockets that are much worse afflicted than neighbouring areas. And what most of these covid hotspots have in common is extreme poverty and deprivation.
A recent piece in the Financial Times picks on just one striking example of this in the east end of London, the borough of Newham and its immediate neighbours. (Inside the ‘Covid Triangle’: a catastrophe years in the making by Anjli Raval, Financial Times, 5 March 2021)
“While coronavirus has inflicted extraordinary suffering across the country, the corner of east London … has been so pummelled that it has become known as the ‘Covid Triangle’. At one point during the peak of the second wave, the three boroughs that made up this triangle – Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge and Newham – were competing for the highest rate of infections in the whole country. In Barking and Dagenham, one in 16 people was reported to be infected.”
A high proportion of the local workforce are either essential workers compelled to go out to work or those who have to go to work if they want to keep the job and put food on the table. This economic imperative proves to be far more decisive in shaping behaviour than any government pronouncement, ensuring the rapid spread of the disease.
Fear of economic insecurity, family break-up and starvation speaks louder than the latest pious injunction on social distancing.
“The situation has long been fragile for those on low-paid zero-hour or shorter-term contracts, for example in hospitality, leisure and retail. Pre-pandemic, up to 36,000 residents in Newham worked below the minimum wage. The worst hit are those in the informal sector, paid cash in hand for shifts,” (often £2 or £3 an hour) and waiting by the phone each day to hear whether there is work or not.
Newham’s problems did not begin with covid. “High levels of deprivation and job insecurity, vast income inequality, housing discrimination and medical disparities have long had a severe impact on the tangle of communities and ethnic minority populations that live in these boroughs. But when combined with the necessity to go to work, to take public transport and to share space in densely packed housing, they also provided the perfect breeding ground for a deadly virus.”
The paper reports that Newham “now has one of the most severe affordable housing shortages in Britain. Some 28,000 people are languishing on the borough’s waiting list and more than 5,500 families with children live in temporary accommodation …
“Rogue landlords cram people into unliveable spaces to squeeze cash out of vulnerable individuals trying to save on rent. It is not uncommon for one bedroom in a house to accommodate a family of four or more, with bunk beds set up in living rooms, garages, basements and offshoots of back alleyways, while a dozen or more people will often share a single bathroom.”
Having a cheap reserve pool of labour, housed in slum tower blocks, and ferried in on crowded tube trains to work in more affluent parts of London suits capitalism just fine – or at least, it did so before these appalling conditions of existence had conspired to incubate the covid virus, posing a threat to Newham’s less hard-pressed neighbours as well.
Newham and its neighbours in the ‘covid triangle’ had just been through a punishing decade of austerity when covid struck. The FT article concludes by quoting an expert in local authority funding from Cambridge, Mia Gray, who says: “Newham’s experience with coronavirus has brought into focus what has been hidden in many parts of the UK for years and the dire consequences of inadequate government support.
“Should the prime minister take seriously his ambition to ‘level up’ and revive the fortunes of those areas left behind, recent events should force a rethink of the role of the state. There are often these moments of restructuring that come after such crises, but in the past, we have been able to look away, and my fear is that we will continue to look away.
“What is visible now will become invisible again.”
The lesson taught by Newham is not that we are ‘all in it together’, but that in order to survive, workers as a class will need to remember how to act together for their common interests and against the capitalist ruling class.