It really wasn’t that long ago that we found ourselves unable to ignore the blatant failings of our economy. Some of us sat in our homes, heated and well-fed, only able to complain about slow WiFi or not being able to see our friends. And people did complain, a lot. That was until we saw nurses posting videos crying after shifts, or heard about doctors dying from Covid, or saw people fight each other for toilet roll in the shops. Then a lot of us shut up and realised that perfecting our banana bread was hardly facing the pandemic head-on in the way that some had to.
We were encouraged to step outside our houses and make some noise for key workers. We applauded our NHS and caring staff for working long hours in very unpredictable and dangerous conditions. We thanked workers in shops who had to face the mayhem of the panic buying phase of the pandemic. We praised teachers for their continued ability to take on more challenges, despite already being overworked. We did this because we could not ignore the fact that it was the lowest-paid, longest-shift jobs in our economy that we relied on in a time of crisis. If the millionaires that own Sainsburys had to work virtually, we could manage. But if the minimum wage workers that stock the shelves and man the tills were gone, we could not. The myth that those who work the hardest receive the most was thoroughly debunked. We needed those ‘unskilled’ workers on minimum wage to get up every day and face a deadly pandemic because it turns out, they are the backbone of our economy, they are the only people considered essential.
The hypocrisy of applauding workers who have been condemned for striking in response to financial cuts for years was glaringly obvious. It got even more awkward when in the middle of a pandemic opposition parties had to fight for the Conservatives to give NHS workers free parking. When we needed our healthcare staff the most, Westminster essentially wanted to tax them for coming to work. Many were desperate to give the billionaire funded Tories a good shaking to remind them that no amount of clapping would drown out cries for reform.
Similarly, when teachers unions were calling for schooling to be moved online, billionaire-owned The Daily Mail ran with a “Let Out Teachers Be Heroes” front-page headline. Teachers may have acted heroically in facing an unpredictable pandemic head on, but they should not be coerced into being overworked in unsafe conditions just so they can retain that title. For years teachers have been complaining about being overworked, understaffed, and underpaid. These cries have hardly been the at the heart of conversations in the media or the government.
It is our job to make sure we appreciate all workers, always. We should not have to find ourselves in a global health crisis to appreciate those that work to help our society function. People should not have to risk their lives for our respect. Decent pay, hours and working conditions should be fundamentals. Democracies are supposed to be run by the masses but too often unions, activists and anyone else who wants better are demonised in the press. Because at our heart, the way our society functions is not designed to benefit workers or the population as a whole.
We have learned from this pandemic that billionaires appreciate our essential workers, until they want control over their working conditions. Calls back in March to #BuildBackBetter seemed promising at the time but tangible change feels further away than ever. Seemingly endless restrictions and lockdowns have worn down that fiery desire for total economic transformation. Maybe now most of us would keep the broken system for the chance to go on a night out or hug our friends. But we cannot let our desire to return to normal life distract us from the fact that normality is deeply unequal and in need of great reform. Our billionaire funded government and mass media are unlikely to push forward this agenda, making it a difficult one to garner widespread and sustained public support for.
Imaginative transformation of the structure of our society is a big task. A big task that can feel overwhelming in and amongst the doom and gloom of this pandemic. But this unequivocally rubbish year could become one of the most important in history if we use it as a turning point, a year where we saw the failings and the inequalities, and we decided to do something about them. Instead of wishing this moment away we need to capture it. Transform this unique public grief and anger into progression. Critique the blatant nepotism at the heart of our government, and demand public funds be much better used in future. Used to create green industries and better fund vital public services. If our economy is in tatters, then let us demand it be built back fairer, stronger and greener. Let’s build it back better.