This global pandemic, and the consequent unprecedented changes to how we live, has laid bare the inequality that exists in our society.
Covid-19 has given inequality a human face when previously it was understood by many in the form of stats and figures, news reports, policy documents, while many more were oblivious entirely.
Workers who have often been considered to be at the bottom of the hierarchy – perhaps because their job is stigmatised for supposedly being unskilled or low paid or not requiring qualifications – are now completely essential to get us through this crisis. Retail staff, cleaners, public transport operators, fruit pickers, delivery drivers, nurses, social care staff, hospital and GP staff, refuse collectors (plus many more hard workers) are now carrying a terrible burden for the collective good.
They have always been our key workers, we just never recognised them.
These workers are facing the virus head on, often with little or no protection, to carry out their essential jobs to keep all of us going. They are also on the lowest wages, in the most insecure financial positions; their industries have often faced years of stagnant wages, staff shortages, underfunding, belligerent companies.
Two examples stand out to me: nurses and retail staff.
You can’t overstate the importance of nurses and doctors at this time. It’s nice that we’ve been applauding our health heroes, but this must be followed up by actions from the government and all of us too. The government must provide adequate PPE for a start; and we can follow the advice – stay home, save lives – to help mitigate the impact on our NHS.
Shop workers are terrified. And with good reason: researchers at Aalto University in Finland created a simulation which showed how quickly and vastly Covid-19 droplets can spread in a supermarket from one cough. Many shops have imposed restrictions, but retail staff have no protection and are completely exposed to the virus from the public.
I’ve worked in retail for nearly a decade, I’ve seen the best and worst of the public, and I know from experience that the attitude of some towards retail staff is that they are lowly and subservient. Right now, these workers are risking their lives – and their families – every day to keep us stocked up; they are paid in pennies and get no recognition. We owe them a huge debt.
You learn a lot about who you are in a crisis, the good and bad. Tens of thousands of people have rallied to help the vulnerable and sign up to volunteer. But this extraordinary situation has exposed an ordinary reality of a stratified society where those at the bottom, barely getting by, must sacrifice themselves for the benefit of those privileged enough to be bored at home (with some not even staying at home).
BBC’s Emily Maitlis summed it up best when she said myths about this pandemic needed debunking and it was “not a great leveller”.
In many ways, the worst outcome of this crisis would be everything going back to normal. When we meet again – there has to be change.
It must be about more than policy; we need to rethink our attitudes and reconsider what, and who, really are essential in the running of our country and do everything we can to support them.
* Chris Park took an MLitt in Media and Communication in Glasgow and is a member of the Liberal Democrats