will there be takeaway at the end of the world? will workers on zero hours contracts get any sick pay if they get ill and indeed can’t deliver said takeaway? will there be enough hand sanitiser to go around? All these questions and more have been thrown up by this week/month/year’s events depending on where you are in the world, and my job as a bike messenger for Deliveroo has suddenly put me in the strange position of being a ‘key worker’ deemed one of those vital workers needed to keep the country going in a time of crisis, social distancing and potential lockdown. (I jest, I know that doctors, nurses and many others are going to heroically hold the country together in these times). Stranger even for me with my part-time job as a university teacher currently in charge of a Msc module, where my side-line in delivering takeaways on my bike is now considered a vital service as the country moves onto a ‘war-footing’ as a the government keeps announcing, as if war is the only word serious enough to convey the urgency of the situation. Why is that? You can’t wage war on a virus, you can tackle it through well-funded public healthcare, a variety of interventions such as contact tracing, testing, social distancing etc, and what does that have to do with war? Anyway, I digress, this blog is about the serious business of delivering takeaways.
As I cycle around the city on my Saturday evening shift I want to cry as the realisation set in that this is what the city would look like in the coming weeks: empty of people, no public life, no street drinking, no enjoyment. I cruised down an empty Park Street, got creeped out in Cabot Circus all its advertisements and glitter to an non-existent crowd, social distancing outside Five Guys metres away from the other couriers. My friend remarked to me last night that she didn’t think the end of capitalism as we know it was going to be so boring. We thought there would be street parties, but we all have to remain in our homes until we are told otherwise. In the silent streets my mind struggles to take in the enormity of what has happened in this short while, and what will emerge from the ruins of this present? As history has shown us, out of the ashes of tragedy can issue fragile new shoots. In Pale Rider, her book about the 1918-20 flu pandemic, Laura Spinney shows how resistance and independent movements who were already organising mutual solidarity networks, like in India to challenge the British state, were better placed to fight the outbreak through mutual aid and support. Civil rights, feminist, independence movements shouted louder after devastating wars, their efforts to support hegemonic powers and fight fascism now demanding their rightful stake in the peace. National public healthcare was rolled out in Europe. To paraphrase this article, those who were nothing and have become everything shall construct a new and better world. Yet the price might be huge, and it might hit the hardest in the poorest countries in the months to come. This World Bank fund sets up investments for developing countries only after the disease has already spread, or in other words too late. The Spanish flu is known for its devastation of Europe, but it killed the highest proportion of people in India.
Can the world really continue as it was when this crisis passes on? Will it not show up the way that in the end, capitalism or the state doesn’t care about the poor and willingly lets homelessness spiral, foodbanks to feed people in the richest places in the world, evictions, redundancies, unemployment. Until a pandemic hits and suddenly governments (in the rich world) are freezing evictions, paying the wages of private workers, nationalising everything, bailing out airlines. All these things that we were told were impossible, are suddenly materialising before our eyes. Tories become socialists overnight? Right-wing hawks are drawing on Kropotkin and hoping that they will be saved by mutual aid networks. Conservatives are crying out for state-funded testing and hospital beds. Is anyone a libertarian in a crisis? The market doesn’t look so enticing when testing kits are $500 and an ICU bed $2000 a night. Democrats are looking wistfully at Chinese state authoritarianism, and its ability to build a hospital in 7 days and introduce draconian controls overnight while on this Brexit island the buffoon in charge is still mumbling about the Englishman’s god-given right to go the pub. For a Chinese take on the state response read this, with insights on US-capitalism’s weaknesses vis-a-vis socialised healthcare. Meanwhile Israel rolls out mass surveillance measures normally only used on Palestinians and other suspect populations.
This week there has been a sudden reorientation of appreciation of those whose jobs support society’s basic needs: doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers of course, sanitation workers, cleaners, refuse collectors, transport, farmers and food growers, and all those working its distribution (that’s where this cyclist comes in), postal workers and delivery drivers. No-one’s relying on the advertising and marketing workers, what David Graeber calls bullshit jobs that serve the hierarchical bureaucracy of capitalism: the flunkies, the paper pushers, the flak catchers, the agents of capital. We don’t need your metrics right now, your telemarketing and your electioneering, how many millions did you spend on your advertising that you could pay to house the homeless? In a global health crisis Deliveroo and Amazon are now shown the importance of sick pay, although no doubt there is an excel spreadsheet somewhere calculating the cost-benefit of paying sick pay versus keeping a fragile and perhaps ill workforce upholding the business. I’m told by my union rep that Deliveroo have a sick pay fund, but only for coronavirus, and that no-one’s been able to access it so far. Through the cracks in the glass the light shines on how we’re all screwed over by capitalism when the sun sets over our locked down world, over the last empty plaza and the pigeons take over Broadmead. Monkeys have already seized territory in the void left by humans in Thailand. I catch my mind drifting and focus my eyes. I’m stood outside Five Guys picking up a burger. I’m taking pizza down Park Street. I’m getting milkshakes from the harbourside and being told to close the door on my way out.
Everything has become more surreal and dystopian overnight. A woman walks through the city centre wrapped in a duvet and holding a bunch of flowers. I cycle along the new cut bridge to Coronation Road as paramedics are helping a man who’s passed out among bottles of booze. Now is the time more than ever to help those who slip through the net in ‘normal’ times. I listen to an interview with Mariame Kaba, prison abolitionist and mutual aid practitioner, and her words hit me like a slap on the face. Now is not the time for despair, now is not the time for expecting the state to provide leadership, it is the time for solidarity. Iran has released 85,000 prisoners, and the UK must do the same. Authoritarian regimes are showing clemency, communist countries are sending medical aid to the centres of global capitalism, ISIS is warning its members not to travel to Europe, and the world is turning upside down if ever it was the right way up. Release all those in prison and immigration detention now and I’ll bring them Deliveroo, or at least the last tins of tomatoes in Tesco, and in the meantime Deliveroo riders and other gig economy workers will continue to demand fair employment rights as we’re now expected to brave the outside world and help support people’s self-isolation with no sick pay or benefits.
Independent Workers of Great Britain union: https://iwgb.org.uk/