COVID-19 the Great Leveller? Radical literature, racism and the pandemic

Dr Razia Parveen

“Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life. Do you consider all this desirable? No, I don’t. But it may be that the psychological adjustment which the working class are visibly making is the best they could make in the circumstances. They have neither turned revolutionary nor lost their self-respect; merely they have kept their tempers and settled down to make the best of things on a fish-and-chip standard. The alternative would be God knows what continued agonies of despair; or it might be attempted insurrections which, in a strongly governed country like England, could only lead to futile massacres and a regime of savage repression.”  George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

 The impact of COVID-19 on working class people

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the egregious class system, which has been ingrained in Britain for centuries. The majority of key workers in Britain are employed in low paid jobs yet are at the highest at risk of being infected. This irony has not been lost on the thousands travelling to work every day. Every news channel and statistic seems to reflect the fact that the virus is most aggressively targeting the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community. A report commissioned in September 2020 by Public Health England (PHE) states: “People from Black ethnic groups were most likely to be diagnosed. Death rates from COVID-19 were highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups. This is the opposite of what is seen in previous years, when the mortality rates were lower in Asian and Black ethnic groups than White ethnic groups. Therefore, the disparity in COVID-19 mortality between ethnic groups is the opposite of that seen in previous years.”

For those who are both a member of the BAME community and a keyworker the chance of not testing positive at some point during the pandemic is low. It has truly turned into a battle of the haves and have nots. While the elderly are dying, the young are being packed into schools that are no longer fit for purpose. The online learning which is offered sporadically has become a learning tool open to the privileged children who have greater access to the internet and have a tablet, laptop or desktop. There is no consideration given to the children who have little or no access to the internet. Many are forced to attend online classes by their schools and if they are not in attendance are reprimanded.  As Orwell observed in The Road to Wigan Peer: “To write books you need not only comfort and solitude—and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home—you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle into anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.” The threat of unemployment is a constant for those who are twice considered as the Other – once by class and then further marginalized through the colour of their skin.

The virus is targeting and killing off those who are in poor health; in the immortal words of Charles Dickens: “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die… If they would rather die”, said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population during this Christmas.” The children in A Christmas Carol (1843) symbolize the poor children in the Victorian era who do not have the common necessities, such as housing, food and clothing. This represents the condition of over a century ago but with this pandemic we have truly come full circle. The 19th century attitude towards the poor working classes emblazoned within the dark heart of Ebenezer Scrooge is alive and thriving with this virus. It is indeed as if Scrooge has come to life in 2020. His contemptuous reference to the poor as ‘surplus population’ is reflected in references to a possible policy of seeking ‘herd immunity’ in the early stages of the crisis, which we now know would have led to a still greater catastrophe for vulnerable people. In Orwell’s prophetic words: “Foreseeing some dismal Marxian Utopia as the alternative, the educated man prefers to keep things as they are. Possibly he does not like his fellow-rich very much, but he supposes that even the vulgarest of them are less inimical to his pleasures, more his kind of people, than the poor, and that he had better stand by them. It is this fear of a supposedly dangerous mob that makes nearly all intelligent people conservative in their opinion.”  Down and Out in London and Paris (1933)

The virus is connecting itself to those who are already struggling and have been trapped by fate. However, it is the children of key workers who are suffering the most from mental health problems. For instance, we have children of the BAME community witnessing grandparents, parents and cousins being taken to hospital as their limited lifestyles are curtailed still further. There is no help or support for these children suffering from mental health problems. For those living in council flats with no access to a garden, these constant lockdowns are much more painful than for those from more prosperous backgrounds, as playgrounds and parks – the very lifeline for many of these children – are closed and out of bounds. Not having easy access to a garden may not have been a prominent issue pre-pandemic but it has now become one. There are increasing calls to understand the impact of this lockdown, and of subsequent school closures, on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. The coronavirus pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to vulnerable families and has placed increased pressure on children’s services.

The impact of COVID-19 on the BAME community

Government bodies prepare report after report but they rarely inform us of the virus’s disproportionate impact on the BAME community. However, recent reports by PHE have recognised the link between COVID-19 and minority communities. The emerging evidence suggests excess mortality due to COVID-19 is higher in BAME populations. Individuals of Black African or Black Caribbean ethnicity may be at increased risk. The risks associated with COVID-19 transmission, morbidity, and mortality can be exacerbated by the housing challenges faced by some members of BAME groups. The most recent research from PHE suggests that both ethnicity and income inequality are independently associated with COVID-19 mortality. Individuals from BAME groups are more likely to work in occupations with a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure. They are more likely to use public transport to travel to their essential work.

It is acknowledged by PHE that this pandemic has not created inequalities in the healthcare system but simply revealed them. This is something that the BAME community has always known and many are reluctant to seek out healthcare as soon as symptoms occur. The scales of healthcare are not tipped in favour of the working class or the BAME community. The pandemic has forced the domestic violence victim, the abused child and the disabled child to suffer more because of being in enclosed spaces with his or her abuser.

One thing this pandemic has made clear is that racial and class oppression are so deeply entrenched in our society that even now we cannot pull them apart. Many broadcasters have described this crisis as the Great Leveller; this could not be further from the truth. COVID -19 does not hit all social classes with the same impact. We are not all in this together. It targets the vulnerable, the families of the keyworkers and most of all the BAME community. Instead of being a Great Leveller, the virus has in fact become the Great Divider, it has not created these inequalities it has exacerbated them and poured salt on the wound. Leading sociologist Rachel Casey writing for the John Rowntree Foundation (JRF) comments: “the Runnymede Trust’s state of the nation report on Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK shows that poverty, health inequality and poor housing conditions impact BAME communities who are among the poorest of socioeconomic groups and who are more likely to be at the frontline of this crisis in low-paid and precarious work picking up our waste, driving our buses and looking after the sick.”

This is a brutal reminder to many within the BAME community of something they have known for years. The impact of this report and others like it, however, seems to have little or no effect on official bodies. Many in the Asian community live in small spaces and with multiple generations – in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Charlie is shown living with his parents, siblings, and grandparents in a house so small small that two sets of grandparents had to share one bed. This, of course, was exaggerated for comic effect but it does reflect the conditions of many BAME households, whose lifestyle is determined by both cultural practices and economic circumstances, which result in many BAME Keyworkers living with their families in rows of terraced houses with back yards filled with uncollected bins. COVID-19 has shone a light on a way of living, which the mainstream media has blamed for spreading the virus. This has helped the right-wing press to distract attention from the thousands attending football matches, the opening of pubs and schools and the Prime Minister’s refusal to criticize Dominic Cummings when he willfully ignored the spirit, if not the letter, of laws designed to protect the public by driving 200 miles for a family break in the middle of the first lockdown.

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health

A new study from PHE and other leading housing charities has shown that the impact of lockdown has had a significantly greater impact on the mental health of BAME men than on that of their white British counterparts. Lockdown and social distancing have also put financial pressures on BAME households. Husbands, who often hold traditional breadwinning roles, have had to deal with a particular mental health burden. For many young men the burden of life under lockdown has been too much and the suicide rate is alarmingly high. Leading physician Dr Abid Aziz at the Bradford Royal Infirmary wrote in the December 2020 issue of the Journal of British Islamic Medical Association that: “The BAME Community and elderly patients and those with co morbidities in particular obesity, diabetes, chronic lung, heart and kidney disease were noted to be at increased risk of mortality.”

The impact of suicide is made all the worse as in many BAME communities as it not only stigmatizes the victim but also becomes a shawl of shame for the whole the family. To have a young male turn to suicide screams to the rest of the community that the system is broken. As Robert Tressell says of his character Frank Owen in his novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914): “No one had any right to condemn him for this, because all who live under the present system practise selfishness. We must be selfish: the System demands it. We must be selfish, or we shall be hungry and ragged and finally die in the gutter. The more selfish we are the better off we shall be. In the ‘Battle of Life’ only the selfish and cunning are able to survive: all others are beaten down and trampled underfoot. No one can justly be blamed for acting selfishly –it is a matter of self-preservation–we must either injure or be injured. It is the system that deserves to be blamed. What those who wish to perpetuate the system deserve is another question.”

For BAME children, seeing their older relatives die and grieving for their loss and being unable to visit them even in during their last days will be the legacy of this cruel virus. Many in my community have spent their final days in a local hospital, surrounded by strange faces and only able to see their family members through the apps on their phones. Recently, a dear and beloved aunt of mine passed away a day after being admitted to hospital. She died alone and, because of a delay in establishing a WhatsApp connection caused by the nursing rota, was not even able see her family, leaving her in anguish and her mother surrounded by a sea of strangers.

A headline from the August 2015 issue of the Social Science & Medicine Journal states: “Ready to give up on life: The lived experience of elderly people who feel life is completed and no longer worth living”. If this was the case before the pandemic, the lockdown has only compounded the torture that the victim faces and the excruciatingly pain of family members living with the knowledge that a mother or father endured this death after a lifetime of self-sacrifice. The virus has become the great stealer of hope and a source of deadly fear in communities up and down the country. Many in the BAME community are reluctant to seek healthcare in normal times and even more so now because we know we are being made scapegoats for the spread if the virus.

Families are left to grieve those lost and gone with feelings of anger, frustration and, worst of all, regret at not being there in their final hours and of not having been able to hold their loved one’s hand. This may sound sentimental but those who care for elderly family members will recognise the value of holding a dying person’s hand. The comfort it can bring to both parties is denied to so many by the virus, leaving only feelings of bitterness and regret. To die alone is the cruellest death to all those who have contracted this virus. and for the living it becomes an immensely difficult time, as Dickens noted: “The broken heart. You think you will die but you just keep living day after day after terrible day”.

The way forward

At the start of 2021, BAME children also face a plethora of mental health issues which must be addressed if we are not to have a generation of young people who are further marginalised and eventually trapped in a vicious circle of despair. As Tressel wrote in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: “I am much more concerned about what is to become of ourselves if these things are not done,’ replied Barrington. ‘I think we should try to cultivate a little more respect of our own families and to concern ourselves a little less about “Royal” Families. I fail to see any reason why we should worry ourselves about those people; they’re all right–they have all they need, and as far as I am aware, nobody wishes to harm them and they are well able to look after themselves. They will fare the same as the other rich people.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues for equality in all aspects of society including better housing, a stronger benefits system and easier access to healthcare for all. Its vision is of a prosperous UK without poverty and its mission to inspire action and change to solve UK poverty. It works to a social change model where we develop and deliver long-term plans aimed at tackling the root causes of UK poverty, in pursuit of the following outcomes:

  • More people want to solve poverty, understand it and take action.
  • More people find a route out of poverty through work.
  • More people find a route out of poverty through a better system of social security.
  • More people live in a decent, affordable home.

We must ensure that a net is provided for all the disadvantaged children of the BAME and working-class community. Tressel’s writing suggests  that a renewed sense of collectivity will be needed in the post-pandemic world if our children are not to see their futures snuffed out like their fictional counterparts in the pages of our great radical authors. His words are a powerful reminder that measures to tackle the epidemic need to go much deeper and further than just lockdowns and vaccines.