In challenging times, I often think “What would Neville do?” Neville Fearneyhough was my wife’s grandfather, a remarkable man whose Halifax Bomber was shot down over occupied Holland in WW2 and worked very hard to succeed in life, defying the odds and everyone’s expectations. Neville always found a way, sometimes to the amusement of his younger family members, He was fiercely independent, had a make do-and-mend ethic and strong sense of fairness that came with living through difficult times. We could do with that now.
I put the frightening speed that this situation has overwhelmed the UK and our lack of preparation down to our misguided faith in, and the sluggish and inadequate response from our Government. On the 3rd of March, I spent the day at meetings in London and applauded a colleague on a joke they had made when reporting a cough in one of our buses as ‘Tucana virus’ (the bus is a ‘VW Tucana). By the 16th, supermarkets were struggling to keep up with demand and my family I have not left our village since.
Why did our Government let us down?
It comes down to how our Government chooses to manage risk. Populist Neo-liberal governments act on risk to the wealth of a few and seek to limit involvement of the State in everyday life. Such a weak response to a public health crisis is only to be expected. The Coronavirus pandemic holds a very strong light to the weakened system we have. Over the last ten years, our National Health, Police, Education, Local Government, Social Care and Criminal Justice systems have been purposefully eroded to the point of collapse. Under the present system, the weak and the vulnerable are vilified and left to die alone. Sadly, thanks to the right-wing media, this is on the watch of a Government many people continually vote for.
As neo-liberal governments pursue a free market and ever more profit, they cut unprofitable but vital public services. The gap between rich and poor widens. I helped set up and run OurBus Bartons, a community transport service, in 2016 in response to deep cuts that left our rural community without public transport. Our volunteers and most of our passengers are over the over 60’s. We support our local school and many local groups and now have three buses. All of our volunteers are unpaid and are very proud of what we do but resent that we have been left with no option but to take this action ourselves.
Why are we letting this happen?
Many of my observations conclude that other people are generally awful. They ruin everything they touch with their fear and greed. In my post on Disability & the Media, I explain how the right-wing media whips up fear, enabling other people create disability in their own minds and use this to limit people who are different. Humans are good at avoiding a threat until it’s actually upon us, by then it’s too late. Now because of no direction or leadership being shown in the face of this pandemic, a lot of people are carrying on defiantly with their normal lives or panic buying. Both put other people’s lives further at risk. This is what happens when people feel unsupported and abandoned. This feeling was exploited by politicians and fuelled by much of the media during recent elections, where Brexit was pushed through.
Why do the British think they are different?
A heady Nationalist myth of British resilience and nostalgia has long been played on by our politicians and media. We like to look back fondly on a golden age, a simpler, better time. As it slips from public memory, the Blitz is held out as a defining moment, even though crime went up by 57% during it. British people have also been fed dangerous myths that individualise them so they can’t see the threat these cuts to Public Services pose. A lot of fear and unseen enemies such as ‘political correctness’ are also used to reject a State which actually looks after its all citizens. Experts are ignored, displaying empathy is dismissed as empty ‘virtue signalling’ and that something, a nanny state/immigrants/Europe is taking away our freedom/jobs/fish.
The chickens have come home to roost
As a disabled person myself, I am very much aware of the irony that ‘ableds’ are complaining that they have to stay at home, cannot get access to the medical support they feel they deserve and are unhappy at having to apply for, and live on, Universal Credit. They resent that the rich and famous have access to superior healthcare testing while they do not. Poverty kills. This is the fate to which our most vulnerable have been doomed for years. But so far, in the Country that brought you Brexit, we are once again showing how stupid, selfish and easily manipulated we are. The Coronavirus Bill hands considerable power to this Government for two years, and further strips support from disabled people. This is chilling thought as we hurtle towards a no-deal Brexit.
Is there any hope?
Only a sliver. This crisis will pass, we don’t know when or how much death it will leave behind, but this is a wake-up call. Coronavirus is a chance for humanity to come together. To change how we tackle global issues such as climate change, how we treat our poor and vulnerable and change our toxic political and social systems before it is too late.
Our essential workers are putting themselves at risk to keep this country going. More than 500,000 have volunteered to support them. These are our best people, but strangely, nearly all in the front-line are simply not valued by this government. They are woefully underpaid, unequipped or on zero hours contracts and are saddled with debt. Communities are still prepared to come together to support their vulnerable. Our street has set up a WhatsApp group so we can support our neighbours and our village has a similar initiative.
So, what would Neville do? Firstly, I think He would have seen through the nationalist myths and seen the writing on the wall. He wouldn’t have been caught as unprepared. During the crisis, He would look beyond politics and class and done his best to help others as a human being. In the aftermath, He would help to build a fair and conscientious society and bring those who have failed us to account. Much as he and many like him did eighty years ago.