I’ve been surprisingly preoccupied by what a man from Hull said to a Guardian reporter recently. Unlike other angry conspiracy theorists, he fully accepts that the Coronavirus is real, but he believes that it is being deployed to kill off the poor, especially everyone on benefits.
Now, as all readers will know, there has been a grotesque range of conspiracy theories washing around for months. They range from questioning its reality, to theories about what the virus is, to where it started, who released it, and with what motives. Vaccines are dangerous, according to ‘anti-vaxxers’, or are vehicles for mass subjugation or surveillance through the insertion of microchips. I won’t go on.
The comment from Hull has rather haunted me, though. Most conspiracy theories take something real – the profit motive for tech and pharmaceutical companies, creeping state surveillance, tensions between China and the West, etc – and supercharge such reality with paranoia, ignorance and prejudice. The chosen theory then offers a convenient vehicle for all sorts of uncertainty, unease, suspicion, mistrust and helplessness. But there’s usually a fundamental breach with reality: a biological virus is different from a computer virus, so choosing Bill Gates as the propagator doesn’t hold much water, thousands have died where there’s no 5G, so Covid infection is not ‘caused’ by that, and so on.
I don’t know whether the man from Hull actually knew the statistics, but his theory has some awful truths to feed, or support it. Covid is far more rife in areas with high levels of poverty. Mortality rates from Covid in the majority of such places are around twice those in the richest parts of our country. Indeed, the figures for total excess deaths are even more grim: for example, in the week up to November 6th, there were 35% excess deaths in the (relatively poor) North West, as opposed to 1% in the (relatively well-off) South East.
But he’s wrong, isn’t he, to attribute a deliberate intention on the part of people in power to kill off all these poor people? Well, yes, I’d say, despite the fact that there are some pretty ruthless people in the corridors of Westminster. Those passionate believers in ‘free’ markets, in ‘people being responsible for their own destinies’, in letting people die on the way to ‘herd immunity’, those modern ‘social Darwinists’ don’t, I think (hope?) actually explicitly espouse the idea of ‘social cleansing by virus’. And look, even Boris Johnson trumpets the idea of ‘levelling up’, doesn’t he? The conditions in which people live in areas with high levels of poverty, the nature of their work, or lack of it, the financial resources and social facilities available to them, the life styles that have emerged over long periods of hardship, all increase both the risk of catching the virus, and of dying from it. So it’s very sad, but not deliberate….
The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world when it comes to income and, though not as dramatically as, say, in the USA, wealth distribution. The relationship between inequality and ill-health, crime rates, drug abuse, violence and so many other aspects of diminished community well-being, have been known for a long time. This is not just since Wilkinson and Pickett wrote ‘The Spirit Level’ in 2009, though they pulled together an impressive comprehensive analysis. Even when the poorest are relatively comfortably off, inequality is bad for the health and well-being of the whole of society. When a significant number of families live in actual poverty, forced to rely on foodbanks, whilst others are extremely well off, the consequences are worse. The economic and social policies of successive governments have left around 20% of the population living in poverty in 2020 – and that was before Covid and its effects on business and jobs. This is not simply about unemployment though. The current government proudly asserts that there are more people in jobs now than for decades. But being in work is not the main issue: it’s the levels of pay, the living and social conditions, the opportunities and the support in terms of the services or benefits that people need, that matter. In fact, inequality and poverty have been amplified and sustained by a broad bloc of social policy, economic philosophies and political projects for some time.
Central to this dynamic has been a concerted turning of a blind eye to the consequences of so many challenges for people and communities as politicians have pursued their agendas. When Margaret Thatcher saw the demise of the coal industry ahead, she did not open up a debate with communities that might be affected. She did not involve local government, the unions, and business in looking into the challenge and developing a strategy that would carry mining communities through traumatic change and into renewal. Instead, she harnessed the situation to demonise and declare war on the unions. When George Osborne inherited the Chancellorship after the 2008 crash, he did not prioritise attending to the suffering of the poor, to the risks to the vulnerable. He imposed austerity, including 40% cuts over a decade to local government funding, with catastrophic effects on vital services, and on the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. Lest you think this is just political point scoring, who can forget Peter Mandelson’s being ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes’? What about Tony Blair’s naïve trust in the free market, while the clouds of gaming, tax-evasion, exploitation and rank dishonesty gathered?
Now, turning a blind eye is by no means always conscious, though sometimes it is, especially when some comforting ideological position offers you the chance to rationalise a rosier vision of some better future. But it comes very close to deliberate when the evidence of suffering is staring you in the face. The marginalisation and sense of grievance felt by so many of the poor, the (horrible expression) ‘left behind’, the denigrated, the precariat, has hardly been hidden from view. And those lived experiences did not just feed the election of Trump, or votes to leave the UK: they contributed to alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, diabetes, obesity, educational under-performance and street crime, and now to disproportionate vulnerability to Covid. The health and social problems in poor communities have been known about for decades. The often traumatically difficult experiences of black and minority ethnic groups, and their own health inequalities, have also been well documented over a long period. The failure to work, energetically, directly and as a priority, to address such troubling realities, to value and care for those who face them, does come very close to being a deliberate choice. And I don’t mean any of these problems are easy to address, simply that they are rarely acknowledged, or worked on, as the vital agenda that they should be.
Then we must factor in what the people in these neglected and poor communities see going on amongst those in power. I find it infuriating to see the complete flouting of rules and procedures about issuing contracts by Government, along with the associated obvious cronyism. When Covid policies are announced, about lockdown(s), about schools and universities, about going to work or working from home, I am exasperated at the apparent lack of any real understanding of the real lives of our diverse and unequal society. When politicians yammer on about saving Christmas – not Diwali, Eid or whatever, and certainly not people starving or on the brink of suicide – I am appalled. And let’s hurdle over the Cummings/Barnard Castle debacle. But I am a comfortably-off white male of a certain age. I can only imagine how such stories in the public arena – and there are many more – affect the perceived relationship, the trust, between the poor and the rich, between society at large and ‘the centre’, between those helpless and vulnerable and those safe and comfortable. And this is not just a matter of whether people trust the government and ‘follow the Covid rules’: it is a far deeper, and longer-in-the-making, fracture of connection.
So the man from Hull might just be forgiven his conviction that he and other poor, benefits-reliant people are being deliberately targeted with Covid. More to the point, his position on the matter might highlight the very urgent need to do something about the situation. Such action needs to be both immediate and long term. Immediately, politicians and scientific advisers must, loudly and clearly, acknowledge the disproportionate vulnerability and costs for the poor. They must communicate recognition and concern for the anxiety and suffering involved. The vulnerability of the poor should shape policy and priority. It would be sensible to prioritise vaccination for people living in cramped, multi-occupant living situations, people in jobs where conditions are poor or social distancing difficult – and obviously health and social care staff (many of them living in poverty themselves). This would be protecting the people most at risk, whatever their age, though age could be factored into any ‘roll out’. In the longer term, if Covid has taught us anything, we require a clear, concerted strategy to reduce poverty and inequality, to revitalise communities, to give them the respect, recognition and long-term support they need, and to mitigate their current and sustained social and health (especially mental health) problems. I know all this sounds expensive, but the costs, to all of us, of neglecting it will be a damn sight worse. In any case, just getting it would be an enormous help.