On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told us that the UK was “past the peak” of the COVID-19 epidemic. Breathlessly, he said that “we can now see the sunlight.” The sun actually did shine through the rain, and a weary nation asked itself: could the end be in sight?
A nation in lockdown seems to dream in synchronicity. I’m hearing tentative hopefulness that not only might things return to normal, but that perhaps we might dream of better. As we try to rebuild after the pandemic, we might dream that this juddering halt in the day-to-day grind might offer a welcome pause to reassess our previously frenetic lives. Having so cruelly laid bare the structural inequalities and widespread deprivation that plague us, we might tell each other magnanimously, the pandemic could offer an opportunity to tackle them. Health workers might finally get the recognition they deserve, as we clap wordlessly out of windows while they die in droves.
We dream that “women’s work” may be understood as the misnomer it always was: even these few weeks of shared parenting and home-working might ease the burden of millennia on mothers. Disruption to education might loosen the shackles of rote-learning and provide a tablet to every child – if not quite a daily meal. We may discover that a mere second’s blip on our path to environmental destruction might just be enough to turn the tide of climate change. We dream that we could emerge from lockdown, out of the ashes of a torched global economy, and pick through the corpses to build a new world.
It’s a comforting dream, but it’s just not credible. In fact, it’s a collective delusion that’s making my stomach churn. It almost feels inappropriate to say this out loud – negative, uncaring, unhelpful – so I type it quietly in the dead of night. Human rights are about to take a meteoric hit. In fact, they already have.
The Human Rights Act of 1998 is actually an act of entitlement: it describes what we in the UK can consider ourselves entitled to. During a pandemic, Article 2 – the right to life – is self-evidently the first to go. Who lives and who dies from COVID-19 is dictated by so much more than chance: age, health, background, job and gender all play their part. A virus might not discriminate, but this pandemic has highlighted the stark inequalities in our society.
Although men are statistically more likely to die from COVID-19 than women, many disruptive factors – poverty, calamity, pandemic – disproportionately affect women. Leaving aside the fact that the UK’s so-called “War Cabinet” features a depressing dearth of women, almost 80 per cent of designated high risk and healthcare workers are female. If this is a war, it’s women on the frontline – and if all we have representing our interests is Priti Patel, then you can sound the Last Bugle now. Women’s rights – such as they are – were bitterly hard won and are bitterly, easily lost. A global lockdown means, by default, restricted access to reproductive healthcare: human rights as we women understand them. I fear this will not be a post-pandemic priority to anyone in power.
Or the right to freedom from torture and inhumane treatment? It was shiveringly telling that when quarantine was announced, most of my female friends’ thoughts went straight to domestic violence. When you effectively lock people in cages with their abusers, you sentence the most vulnerable to the slow torture of inescapable violence and possible death. Refuge, the UK’s foremost domestic abuse charity, reports a 700 per cent increase in calls to its helpline, in just one day. The Home Office offered an additional £2 million for helplines and online support networks. With 1.6 million women affected by domestic violence in the UK, that works out to 95p per woman.
Studies have shown that the last recession resulted in a significant increase in intimate partner violence. Hardly surprising, given that male-on-female violence surges even when England loses at the football. And as they stare down the twin barrels of economic recession and job losses, victims must be wondering what the hell is going to happen to them when there’s no football on at all.
And what of our civil liberties, already a bloated carcass nibbled by the sharks of austerity and anti-terrorism laws? The measures in the Coronavirus Bill are temporary, the government tells us, as the police repeatedly overreach their powers in the bid to enforce lockdown. It’s hard to appreciate the drastic cuts to the police service as I watch through the window while groups of them converge on teenagers playing in the park, frenzied by bloody drops of so-called disobedience. A police force newly puffed up with self-importance has nowhere good to go.
Or how about the right to privacy, bombarded as we currently are with adverts for tracing apps and warnings of facial recognition technology mishaps? Privacy in a pandemic seems like an easy sacrifice to make as we rush to find ways of working and cures for a disease. But this is a nation already studied by more CCTV cameras and technological intrusions than Orwell could ever have envisaged. The idea that a government empowered with our most intimate data will give it up after lockdown is frankly laughable.
Your retort is probably, well, what would you have them do? After all, it’s now undeniable that faster and more decisive government action – anathema to libertarians – would have spared thousands of lives. Nor would I want to ally myself with Boris Johnson, a man who sees himself as a libertarian but who others see as incompetent, ineffectual and self-serving.
Are human rights a price worth paying to protect humanity itself? Or is freedom and a healthy democracy worth dying for? An easy question to ask when I’m not the one doing the dying. I simply don’t know.
But here is what I do know: those who believe a pandemic might help bridge the stark divide of inequality and power need only look to the past. Has an economic recession ever resulted in a fairer society? Even if the pathetically meagre salaries afforded to key workers are increased – literally, the people who clean our excrement and care for our sick – how far will that money go as recompense? For the thousands that are dying with inadequate PPE, or under poor working conditions and without any rights at all, will it be a price worth paying?
So when, if ever, we emerge from our lockdown caves, dishevelled and blinking in the unfamiliar light, I fear that the dream of a brave new world will be just that: a dream. Nothing but a pretty mirage, like a rainbow in the sky.