Supermarket workers are amongst the many who have been deemed 'essential' by the government.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS: KGBO

Last Thursday evening I stood on the doorstep with my parents, listening to applause echo down the valley in tribute to key workers and the NHS. ‘Do you think,’ said my dad, ‘I would risk my life to go into work if I had any other choice?’ 

The choice he was referring to wasn’t a moral or ethical imperative, but the simple economics of survival. My dad, a postman, does no lifesaving work. No one’s health or wellbeing is served when he cycles ten miles to an overcrowded office to sort the mail elbow to elbow with forty other Royal Mail employees. No one will die if their latest ASOS haul fails to arrive, or the DIY gym equipment bought to alleviate the boredom of working from home. No one’s lives are saved. But the lives of my dad, his family, and the lives and families of every single person in his office are put on the line every day they continue to work in these conditions. And yet they do continue to work, not from choice, nor duty, nor patriotism, nor love-for-thy-fellow-men, but to earn a living wage.  

"By celebrating our essential workers as ‘heroes’ we allow the government to perform a convenient sleight of hand, wherein responsibility is shrugged off."

To glorify this labour disregards the demands of basic essentials; food, a place to live, the myriad costs of daily life from which a pandemic does not grant exemption. No one who signed up to deliver mail, drive a bus, or stock supermarket shelves ever entertained the thought that they would one day be required to risk their lives to do so. It’s easy to sanctify the vital work of the thousands of NHS workers who turn up, every day, to perform what amounts to a practice of miracles, one after another. Yet well-intentioned gestures of support fall flat when they ignore or conceal the desperate conditions in which these workers are forced to function - and at no higher a wage than when the reasonable expectation of occupational hazard was limited to back strain or fatigue. Under usual circumstances we would expect work engendering a real degree of risk to be reflected in the corresponding wage, and protective measures in place to minimise the danger. By celebrating our essential workers as ‘heroes’ we allow the government to perform a convenient sleight of hand, wherein responsibility is shrugged off. Heroism affords a certain dehumanisation, wherein death is framed as acceptable. It does not diminish the magnitude of these deaths to acknowledge that this is not a sacrifice but a martyrdom. 

The wording of the ‘Clap For Our Carers’ campaign was recently adjusted to ‘Clap For Our Carers And Key Workers ’. Our ‘key workers’, defined by government guidelines as including transport operatives, delivery staff, cleaners and utility workers, constitute some of the most underpaid and undervalued jobs in our workforce. These are the ‘unskilled workers’ (whose labour is often performed by refugees and minorities) who the Conservative government deems superfluous to society. Well-deserved media coverage has gone to the doctors and nurses who have lost their lives caring for the sick. But the exaltation of these names and faces to hallowed, semi-hagiographic status obscures individual grief, and the anger that should be felt towards a government which fails to deliver sufficient provision for the workers it lauds as heroes.

"The myth that labels Covid-19 ‘the great leveller’ is patently and offensively false."

Key workers across the country are dying every day from a lack of PPE (personal protective equipment). Dr. Abdul Mabud Chowdhury passed away shortly after writing to the prime minister to emphasise the urgent need for adequate supplies for ‘each and every NHS worker in the UK’. It was reported last week that fourteen transport workers in London have died from Covid-19. It’s not so easy to frame the deaths of bus drivers as a necessary sacrifice, yet by performing their jobs, all key workers are exposed to a high risk of contracting the virus. The comfort derived from terms of war or worship in reality only dishonours the everyday labour of all essential workers and shields the government from the responsibility of providing the resources necessary to make that labour possible. 

The myth that labels Covid-19 ‘the great leveller’ is patently and offensively false. It’s a fallacy that has been echoed by politicians and the media in the wake of Boris Johnson’s own illness; in a recent press conference, Michael Gove claimed that the virus ‘does not discriminate’. This personification of Covid-19 is in itself a rhetorical distraction. But what does, very much, discriminate, is our social and political system in which the virus is functioning. Covid has not magically wiped the board clean. Sickness is not a level playing field, despite what the headlines would have you believe. The most underprivileged in our society are disadvantaged still further by the privations of the pandemic; the homeless, the disabled, the manual labourers who cannot work from home. Quarantine looks very different from a four-bedroom house in the suburbs than it does from a council flat. A condition to which we are all vulnerable does not erase the existing structure in which we are affected. After all, we all die. We don’t all die equally. 


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To make such a statement is to deny the reality trapping thousands of people in an unequal and unjust system which ‘sacrifices’ low-income workers with one hand while clapping with the other. A one-handed clap isn’t applause, it’s a pat on the back. It helps no one but yourself. These injustices always existed, were always, in the end, a matter of life and death. Now, when the consequences of inequality should be most urgently exposed, they risk being masked by a narrative of ‘blitz spirit’ that seeks to self-mythologise ‘the British people’ into a cohesive entity. When hope is so desperately sought after, rejecting self-serving propaganda might seem cynical or pessimistic. Yet it is a vital necessity. We cannot cradle our loved ones in words or praise. Our platitudes do not provide the protection that ‘front-line’ workers so desperately need. Our anger might.