Dear Radio 4, we’re facing more pressing issues than surviving 14-days of isolation and no sport

Emily Apple

Listening to Radio 4‘s Today programme on 14 March, you could be forgiven for thinking that the biggest problem we’re facing with coronavirus (Covid-19) is how we’re all going to cope with isolation and lack of sporting fixtures. The programme asked:

How to we cope in isolation? How do we thrive in circumstances most of us would not regard as normal?

In fact, a whole segment was devoted to the experiences of a woman who experienced isolation working in Antarctica. And although the programme did also cover other aspects of the global pandemic, the overall impression given to the listener was of middle-class concerns that ignored the reality so many people are facing.

But while the biggest problem for the middle classes might be how they’re going to self-isolate, the fact is, they can. People with houses and bedrooms and no additional needs can lock themselves down. But for hundreds of thousands of people across the UK, this isn’t an option.

Homeless people

The Guardian reported on 13 March that:

More than a quarter of a million vulnerable people including rough sleepers and drug users are missing out on vital advice on how to handle the coronavirus threat, placing lives at risk

Meanwhile, at the end of June 2019, 86,130 households were living in temporary accommodation. That’s thousands of families and children who are sharing rooms, sharing bathrooms, and sharing kitchens.

Then there are people living in overcrowded accommodation. Data from 2014 to 2017 shows 680,000 households are overcrowded – “that is, they had fewer bedrooms than they needed to avoid undesirable sharing”. These figures show that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic households are also more likely to face overcrowding.

Disabled people

Disabled people are also facing numerous problems from the threat of coronavirus. Firstly, there’re many people whose immune systems are already weak. Access and inclusion expert Sarah Rennie told Disability News Service:

I have spinal muscular atrophy, so any sort of flu or pneumonia would be life threatening.

I have cancelled all face-to-face work for the next month (not great financially!) and my care team are taking all infection control precautions.

However, if any of my PAs [personal assistants] (two of whom are teachers with massive social contact levels) come into contact with the virus, how do we effectively self-isolate?

My PAs come in and out, changing shifts twice a day. Are they expected to care for me if I develop any symptoms of a virus?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with my family. My sister has cerebral palsy. She relies on PAs for all aspects of her daily life. If they get ill, we can find cover. But if she gets ill, what happens? In normal circumstances, she’d stay with my parents. But they are both in their 70s with underlying health conditions that put them in the high-risk category, so she can’t go there.

Thousands of families must be having similar conversations. Our concerns don’t centre around what two weeks at home with Netflix and social media will do to us – but how we can look after each other and protect our loved ones.

Prisoners

In 2019, the Howard League for Penal Reform reported that 18,000 prisoners were housed in overcrowded cells designed for fewer people. It described the conditions people face as “cooped up like battery hens”.

But advice from the government seems to ignore this reality. According to prisons minister Lucy Frazer:

This means prisons are well prepared to take immediate action whenever cases or suspected cases are identified, including isolating individuals where necessary.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported:

It is understood plans being drawn in up in Whitehall involve communicating regularly with inmates, making sure they can contact their families and providing extra materials – like books and magazines – to those isolating to try to avoid boredom.

But as Breaking Point, a report into the state of prisons in 2014, stated:

Sweeping cuts to prison officer numbers have had an impact on every part of prison life. Prisoners are spending more time locked up as association periods and library visits are cancelled due to inadequate staffing numbers.

So we’ve got a prison system that houses prisoners like “battery hens” and is grossly understaffed anyway. Yet the government’s response is to suggest people retreat to single-cell accommodation that doesn’t exist and read more books.

Refugees and undocumented people

The number of undocumented people in the UK is hard to calculate. But research from Pew Research Centre in 2017 found that there were between 800,000 and 1.2 million undocumented people in the UK.

The government has issued new guidance for coronavirus that states:

No charges apply to testing for COVID-19, even if the result is negative, or to any treatment provided for COVID-19 if the result is positive or up to the point that it is negatively diagnosed. The same is true of most other infectious diseases.

NHS trusts have been advised that no immigration checks are required for overseas visitors that are known to be only undergoing testing or treatment for COVID-19.

But given we’re living in a time where health professionals have been forced to act as immigration officials, it’s hard to know both how widely this is known to the people affected. And given the hostile environment, it’s not hard to see why anyone who thinks they might be at risk from an immigration check might not want to take the risk.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2018, there were 1,784 in immigration detention. But 24,748 people entered immigration detention during that period – in other words, people who either were deported or released dependent on the outcome of their cases. In 2018, the Guardian reported that conditions in detention centres were “worse than prison”

Celia Clarke, director of Bail For Immigration Detainees, called for people to be released:

Immigration detainees are deprived of their liberty in appalling conditions with inadequate access to healthcare. These create fertile conditions for the spread of coronavirus and we are very concerned that the situation in immigration detention could quickly reach a crisis point if the government does not immediately release people. People are held in immigration detention for purely administrative reasons and there is no reason they cannot be released.

Authoritarian neglect

The government’s response to the epidemic is best described as authoritarian neglect. It’s drafting emergency legislation that will include the right to detain people suspected of having the virus.

According to the Mirror, the new legislation will also include powers forcing schools and nurseries to stay open and that:

councils will be allowed to strip back services offered both to people in care homes and in their own homes without legal challenge – so long as they do not cause ‘serious neglect or harm’.

But as the Network for Police Monitoring tweeted:

Given the crisis in social care, and cuts that have left those in need already suffering in appalling conditions, the potential consequences of this are horrendous. In 2018, a Community Care survey found that:

Almost two thirds (62%) of 282 practitioners responding to a Community Care survey said they had seen cuts to care packages that had increased people’s social isolation, over the past two years, with half of this group saying the cuts had been driven by financial pressures rather than changes in need or commissioning practice.

It’s hard to see what’s left to “strip back”.

Mutual aid

One thing is clear. The government is not going to look after us. And while this is a disease that rips apart borders and class, you could put money on the fact that it’s not going to be Stanley Johnson, Rupert Murdoch or the Queen fighting for a hospital bed. Because while the elites face the threat of the virus in the same way, the impact on them and their lives will not be the same.

The Labour Party is calling for the requisition of private hospital beds, something that is desperately needed. But we need to go further. Plan C has issued the following set of demands that everyone should be fighting for:

Meanwhile, mutual aid groups are being set up around the country – at the time of writing, there are 68. Anna Vickerstaff, one of the coordinators of Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK stated:

There’s some pretty big questions about whether or not the government’s response to this crisis has been fit for purpose. So it’s even more important that so many ordinary people across the country are keen to offer solidarity to each other in a moment of need. We’d love to see even more communities get involved too – and we’re developing resources to help people take action in their neighbourhoods.

Perfect storm

There’s potentially a perfect storm brewing. Vast numbers of poor and vulnerable people are at risk and our usual methods of protests such as mass mobilisations are shut down due to the pandemic and authoritarian legislation. It’s urgent that we all get involved in our communities. If there’s one positive that can come from all of this, it’s how we can work together, bypass the government, and set up our own alternatives.

And we need to speak up for all the vulnerable people who aren’t necessarily in our communities, for the people we’ve never met – whether that’s the thousands of people in our prisons, disabled people, people in care homes, or homeless people. We have to ensure all our voices are loud and clear and not drowned out by middle-class concerns about the impact of staying at home for two weeks and establishment worries that prioritise the economy and markets over people.

But it’s also important this isn’t about charity. It’s about mutual aid. This is about saying the state has failed, and that ordinary people working together can provide solidarity and solutions. There are many aspects of this virus that are frightening and disempowering – but how we treat and look after each other doesn’t have to be one of them. And if we get that right, the positive impact on communities could far outlast the virus itself.

Featured image via screengrab

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