It’s Tuesday 31st March and day 11 of delivering food in a bag on my back from restaurants to houses during the UK’s shutdown. Some true heroes are emerging from the pandemic era and I hope we won’t forget them after this is all done: doctors and nurses, many of them from other countries (I hate the word ‘migrant’ that has been coopted as a slur by the right wing press) who are right now putting their lives on the line to save others in our hospitals, as well as cleaners, rubbish collectors, delivery drivers, postal workers and everyone else to ensures society meets its basic needs of food, care and shelter. People are realising that populist leaders like Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Orban don’t care about you and they don’t care if you live or die. The neoliberal economy doesn’t care if you live or die as long as the aggregate numbers stay high enough to keep the economy running after we come through this crisis and basketball starts again. Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick wants to kill off old people rather than damage the great American economy, calling people to get back to work and ‘get back to living’ (?) while thousands of people in the US are dying and there are makeshift morgues being built in New York City:
Others are providing vital support to help workers weather the crisis and I’m thinking about my union reps in the IWGB union, working flat out trying to secure rights for cleaners, drivers and couriers delivering Covid samples between hospitals in London without protective equipment or sick pay. And some are providing much-needed mental sustenance by entertaining and motivating us online, like feminist journalist and commentator Mona Eltahawy. I watch her ‘Feminist Giant Dispatches from the Quarantine’ the other day, starting “This is Mona Eltahawy’ and as always, fuck the patriarchy!’. She goes on to talk about how the crisis has made us rethink the nature of the possible and impossible. Critical feminists have been a thorn in the side of mainstream society by asking ‘is that really impossible?’ and ‘is that really natural?’ She points out that many of the things that we were told were impossible have suddenly become possible in the blink of an eye during this crisis: huge government bailouts to pay workers, nationalisations of industry, the granting of abortion rights in Northern Ireland and the mass release of prisoners. In Portugal, all foreigners were granted full residence rights during the crisis so they can access work, get bank accounts and access public services. Meanwhile, the UK government is still failing to provide adequate support to asylum seekers, and placing at-risk detainees in immigration detention in solitary confinement. Remember these are people who have committed no crime under UK law and are held without usual legal rights (eg visitation rights, rights to see a lawyer) or evidence against them. The government is also preventing asylum seekers from working, even if they are doctors or nurses, which many are. Currently, as this article states, we have migrant doctors driving for Uber as they cannot get accredited to practice in the UK.
As the Portugal example shows, it is within the state’s capacity to grant rights to foreigners in the UK and immediately stop the hostile environment. Evictions, debt collection, asylum refusals, immigration detention and imprisonment are all political choices and if they can be suspended during this public health crisis they can be stopped in general and for good. Granting an exception shows up the flimsy nature of the rule. If I get corona virus I might be in with a chance of sick pay from Deliveroo, if I can jump through the intentional loopholes, but why only if I have corona virus? Why wouldn’t I get sick pay if I break my leg and can’t cycle? The government has suspended evictions for refused asylum seekers for a very short three month period, but why was it evicting people into destitution in the first place? A few weeks ago I attended the last session at Bristol Refugee Rights before the centre closed and one member who is in the vulnerable category and should be shielded for 12 weeks according to government policy had just been evicted from their housing (after their asylum appeal was rejected). In the UK there are reports that a ‘record number’ of evictions are taking place despite the emergency law suspending evictions during the pandemic period. Are evictions firms and debt collectors part of the ‘essential services’ this country needs during this crisis? Our grandchildren will read the history books and ask ‘granny, did they still evict people during the global pandemic at the end of capitalism?’ And we’ll answer, yes love, they did. But don’t worry, those days are over now. We realised when the world started falling apart and we nearly lost it all the importance of supporting each other. It’d been there all along but we were too selfish to see that humanity and the ecosystem were part of the same brilliant web sustaining life on earth and that we need to nurture it not destroy and exploit each other and all of earth’s precious resources.
I’ve been working as a cycle courier in Bristol on and off since 2016, taking a year off to cycle to Palestine, and 9 months when I had a full time teaching position at Bristol uni. So more off than on in the past four years, but cycle couriering (is that a verb?) has been making up around 40-60% of my wage since my last teaching position ended last June, more in the holidays when I am not paid by the uni. Now I’m seeing the downsides to the zero hours model for labour: not only do we get paid very little for a rigorous physical job while top executives rake in millions in shares, hey, that’s capitalism, plus ca change, we know what the deal is on that front. More serious than wage inequality is the profound loss of labour rights and employee benefits like sick pay and a guaranteed minimum wage. I never worried about the lack of a minimum wage because I only work peak times of evenings and weekends and there’s always been an excess of orders so you can cherry pick orders, refusing orders to dead end parts of town knowing that you’ll get another one immediately. On Monday something happens that has never happened to me before: an evening logged in and cycling around town but with no orders to deliver. I cycle from home in Easton to town, up Park Street and down Jacob’s Well Road, along Anchor Road to town and decide to give up and head home.
On Tuesday I’m logged into Uber and Deliveroo and my first order is a burrito from the waterfront to Bedminster. Here is how Uber works out my fee: the total trip cost is £5.33, presumably added onto the total bill to the customer, of which Uber takes £1.60, and pays me an extra £0.53 in peak hours promotion, leaving me with £4.26. Next I get pinged for Deliveroo to take fish and chips from East Street to Windmill Hill. It’s a beautiful view from the top of the hill across to Clifton and the gorge, and I enjoy riding a geared bike after months on my fixie. Another Uber order comes in from East Street to Ashton. After that I cycle back to town and take a single milkshake to east Bristol and even the Silverthorne Lane industrial area is shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. In Barton Hill the pastel tower blocks are suddenly sublime and I stop to look at one. A woman is sat on the bench opposite drinking a tin of beer enjoying the sunlight and I want to stop and join her. She reminds me of an old woman I saw sitting alone at a cafe on a beach in Montenegro once. The evening is golden and at the time of writing there is still takeaway in what feels like the end of the world, or a least a city in silent sleep.
There are still many claiming that we’re at war with this virus and it is irritating me more and more. Why does it matter? Cynthia Enloe writes that ‘militarism … is a complex package of ideas that, all together, foster military values in both military and civilian affairs.’ It seeps into all areas of cultural life and tells us that enemies are lurking everywhere and that violence is instrumental to defeat them. Militarism valorises soldiers and military solutions even when their use is not appropriate. Look at this front-page of the Sun from Wednesday:
The Sun might be appealing to a jingoistic narrative in an attempt to soothe or to boost morale in the face of the cold hard fact of a giant field hospital in London, and war is the analogy it settles upon. We’re told over and again that we’re at war with the virus, that the Prime Minister wants industry on a ‘war footing’ to provide the necessary equipment to tackle the crisis. The intended meaning of the word war in this discourse is one of mobilisation like a country mobilising troops and industry in a world war, and of rallying behind a huge national effort. Yet there is another meaning obscured by this patriotic narrative, which is that war is very bad and that’s why we might stumble upon it in the absence of other words to convey the severity of this crisis. With mounting death tolls, curfews, military law and field hospitals in New York and London, it feels like it might in a world war. Yet it’s an inappropriate analogy because it conceptualises a violent struggle where what society is suffering from is a dearth of adequate care. Years of neoliberal austerity has brought public healthcare systems to a point of weakness that reduces their ability to respond to a sudden epidemic. The current crisis is political, worsened by willful neglect of public services and chronic undervaluing of some of the most important people in society, now and always: nurses and carers. The language of war and military further marginalises their importance and what we need instead is a language of care and of solidarity. Oliver Sachs can help: he writes in Awakenings that “health, disease, care, these are the most elemental concepts and the only ones adequate to bear the discussion.” He goes on: “How can one suppose that diseases are not parts of ourselves, and parts of the world, but outside nature or demonic? For such a supposition is clearly insane. To suppose that diseases, or anything, are alien is the clearest sign of one’s alienation.” Ever the humanist, Sachs is calling for a holistic understanding of the human subject and their suffering, and this requires a stance of care and not of war or conflict, or casting out. Neoliberal austerity and the advent of zero hours algorithm management systems are so profoundly dehumanising that they are exacting a heavy toll on society in the midst of this crisis. Who is holding society together right now? Not the army and not the police but healthcare workers, carers and volunteers like the half a million who signed up to help the NHS, and the thousands helping their neighbours in community support and mutual aid groups. As Sachs writes in the conclusion to Awakenings, “A single good relation is a life-line in trouble, a pole-star and compass in the ocean of trouble … Kinship is healing; we are physicians to each other.”