Austerity has weakened our societal immune system

How easily a house of cards comes tumbling down. Just as our bodies need a strong immune system to fight the coronavirus disease, so too do our societies need resilience, stability, and strength to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the last two weeks has shown just how weak and arbitrary the veil of stability, order, and civilisation is in the UK.

The pandemic reveals how the pathogen of austerity has compromised our national immune system. Ten years of cuts across the board have weakened the strength of our domestic institutions, diminishing our ability to effectively respond to a crisis of this scale. From public health to social services to local government, we now lack the capacity and resilience to counteract the impact of Covid-19.

The insouciance of our leaders combined with deep public distrust compounds these frailties, leaving us to succumb to a catastrophe that other countries have seemingly avoided. Whilst the antidote to these symptoms will be a long time coming, the political source of this deadly pathogen is crystal clear.

Two motifs stand out amongst the madness of this time. Firstly, images of panic buying and other public misbehaviour offer a pointed illustration of the tragedy of the commons: hoard whatever you might need, regardless of the consequences to others; put yourself above others. In this new world, the gloves are off, and it’s clear that if push comes to shove, we’ll eat each other alive. 

Many of the same people who rally against inequality and corporate and individual greed now stockpile food and supplies for themselves and their family. The principle is the same across both groups: take what you can, while you can. What was once the language of business now dominates the language of our culture; we have internalised the promotion of self-interest above other priorities. In this time of crisis, most of us don’t know how to behave any other way.

Yet, conversely, the second motif of this time is the rapid reversal of our relationship with the state. With the UK’s hyper-individualistic way of life under threat, the Tories have quickly pivoted to more interventionist, socialist, progressive policies. That free market neoliberalism has been thrown out the window so casually and comprehensively suggests that the model does not provide as strong a foundation for our society as had been claimed. If anything, the central pillar of money as the core consideration of our day-to-day existence has started to crumble, along with our reliance upon globalization, and our working practices and assumptions.

Coronavirus is a watershed moment for the Left. The virus is disruptive not so much because of how contagious or deadly it is to us as humans, but because it challenges the foundational principle of Western democracy – that we are free to do whatever we want – as well as the literal manifestation of this idea in neoliberalist policy: that markets and market forces should be left alone, free from state intervention. As we have seen in the last few weeks, so fragile is neoliberalism that companies, individuals and entire economies now require the involvement of government to avoid total collapse.

Freedom is now our Achilles’ heel. Freedom has allowed coronavirus to spread and shut down the entire world. Freedom becomes freefall. Covid-19 demands that we now think collectively rather than individually; that we work towards the greater good, rather than personal gain; that – whisper it – we may even need to curtail individual freedom so as to benefit the collective whole.

In The War of the Worlds (1953), Martian invaders attack and lay ruin to Earth. Everything humanity throws at them fails, including conventional weapons and atomic bombs. Cities are abandoned; the world lies in ruins. We are crushed by an alien force.

In the end, just as all hope is lost, the seemingly indestructible Martians are killed off by the common cold. In the words of H. G. Wells’ story, on which the film was based, they were “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.” 

In the 1950s, the film served as an allegory for the perceived Communist threat. The 2005 remake served as an allegory for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Today, it provides an allegory for neoliberalist capitalism in 2020. The destroyer of worlds; the all-powerful, inhuman ideology, based on atomisation, hyper-individualism, and alienation, brought to its knees by a mild respiratory virus. 

We’ve been given a sabbatical from the capitalist machine and the cult of busyness. Britain is off sick. Capitalism is off sick – and we’d be back on our feet much sooner if we had a warm home to rest up in. We should have fixed the roof while the sun was shining. Instead we have a decimated healthcare system, millions living on the poverty line, and a government reluctant to introduce lockdowns for fear of reprimand and public boredom. 

The NHS’s weakened capacity led to the government’s “herd immunity” strategy, which was supposed to deliberately expose us all to Covid-19 for fear of overloading our weakened health system. As our leaders strive for the least-worst outcome, the population is treated as a disposable entity, even if this results in thousands of deaths.

What is now required is a complete overhaul of the economic system from the foundation up: one that is stable enough to always protect each one of us, no matter the scale of the existential threat. This new system must serve our public interest, rather than the remote masters of the universe looking for quick returns, and fundamentally overhaul how we structure, understand and preserve our lives as an interdependent society.

During the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon in 1968, William Anders took a famous shot of Earth rising above the lunar horizon. The photo became known as Earthrise. It showed how small, interconnected, and fragile our planet is, and it became an iconic image of the environmentalist movement.

This is without question our generation’s Earthrise moment: the time when we see nakedly just how fragile and delicate our civilisation has become. This frailty is a result of the economic practices that have become dominant since the 1980s. We must recognise that our dog-eat-dog, me-focused, cavalier attitude needs to be eradicated. Coronavirus has exposed the instability of our global system, the interconnectedness of all humanity, and our responsibility to each other. May this disease sear into our consciousness rather than our bodies, and may it guide our thinking for years to come. Let it produce a political and social vaccine that inoculates us against the peril of neoliberalism and exterminates the policy of austerity forever.

Hadley Coull is an independent writer and researcher, who runs insight collective, Headz.

Chris Ogden is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations, at the University of St Andrews.

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