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COVID-19: Why such a slow response from the Government?

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It's not just the UK Government that was slow to respond to COVID-19. I arrived in Spain on the day the Spanish Government closed all its schools. Clearly I had not been paying enough attention. On my return I started to read up on the virus, why it was spreading so quickly and why it was so deadly. Then I started to wonder why our Government seemed so slow to act.

Is it a kind of racism? 'Don't worry it won't hurt us.' 'They don't have proper scientists in other countries.' 'Don't worry, we're just cleverer than everyone else.' 'It's those crazy foreigners. As usual they're all overreacting and getting too emotional.' 'Perhaps Brexit Britain now means that we can ignore people who don't look or talk like us?'

Is it eugenics?

Is it eugenics? You may be shocked that the Government has wilfully decided on a policy which will lead to increased deaths. However, we know that the Government is ignoring academic research which shows that welfare reforms are increasing suicides. We know that austerity has led to the worst recovery from an economic crisis in over 100 years and is reducing the length of life for people living in poorer communities.

Eugenics was a popular belief system in the 1930s, supported by many on the Left and the Right. Only the Holocaust was able to shake people awake and make people realise that everyone has the right to a decent life and that we need human rights and a strong welfare state to ensure everyone can thrive and flourish. But to our current crop of leaders this may seem like ancient history. Certainly, the Government has consistently ignored the United Nations' criticism of welfare reform and austerity.

But perhaps Government policy is not intentionally malign, perhaps it is just a frightened reaction by a system that has suddenly realised how fragile our society has become. The virus throws into sharp focus the fact that we've built a society on shaky foundations.

The primary challenge of COVID-19 will be to ensure that we can offer people the right kind of emergency medical care. However, the UK has spent decades running the NHS on the principle that excess capacity is wasteful. So, when excess capacity is vitally required, we find that we don't have the beds, the doctors or the nurses. Worse, we see private companies trying to sell this capacity back to us. Suddenly full re-nationalisation of healthcare looks very rational.

Imagine if we hadn't spent over 10 years destroying local government

Underneath this challenge is a series of other problems. The unfolding economic crisis could be cataclysmic because so many businesses, jobs and incomes have no secure underpinnings. As consumer spending falls, businesses will crumble, jobs will go and the spiral will continue. Without public sector spending and something like a Universal Basic Income, the whole private sector will be in ruins. But, the Chancellor's budget - as usual - has focused on businesses, not citizens, and as in 2008 we are likely to see subsidies go in precisely the wrong direction.

Hidden even further out of sight are other important challenges. How do we make sure that everybody gets food, support and a safe place to live? How do we take care of our neighbours, our family, the homeless man outside Sainsbury's, the disabled woman who needs personal assistance, and all those congregated in care homes - where infections can spread like wildfire?

The work of community support may fall to local community groups, many of which are now coming into existence, but imagine if we hadn't spent over 10 years destroying local government. Imagine if instead we'd created systems of neighbourhood democracy. Imagine if we actually lived in a democracy with meaningful structures for local participation, decision-making and action. We would be a lot safer. We wouldn't be relying on the edicts of the clown in Number 10 for our safety - we'd be organising locally and quickly. These are the strong foundations we must build in the coming weeks and months.

Simon Duffy

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