“Lights and shadows of a health and socio-economic emergency” by Arturo Ezquerro
- Posted by Cristina A-C
- On July 21, 2020
“Lights and shadows of a health and socio-economic emergency” by Arturo Ezquerro
Brexit effectively drove all other issues off the agenda in the United Kingdom (UK), from June 2016 to February 2020. Subsequently, Covid-19 has done the same thing. The European Union (EU) is now facing a challenge that is larger than Brexit, as member states keep bickering over how best to respond to the health and socio-economic crisis unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic – which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, as well as soaring levels of unemployment, uncertainty and emotional distress.
In 1992, in the wake of the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, which created a common EU citizenship, the European Commission had proposed a directive on a Europe-wide minimum income. Predictably, the richer northern member-states contested the proposal since, they said, it would be an unacceptable wading into national social policies.
The UK was indeed one of the countries which opposed the idea more fiercely – never mind Brexit. The proposed directive was downgraded to a non-binding recommendation, which was buried under countless tons of red tape.
The idea of a pan-EU minimum wage has recently been resurrected in the socialist-led Spanish Parliament, and supported by ministers from other southern European countries, as Europe is devastated by the worse tragedy since the Second World War and, also, sinking into the worst recession for generations. This is a moment for radical group-attachment thinking.
Some of the key functions of attachment are protection and accessibility to attachment figures and to groups constituted as attachment figures. The pandemic is showing that individual attachment can only be secure-enough as part of secure group attachment. People who find themselves in particularly vulnerable situations should have access to health and social protective mechanisms that allow them to care for themselves and their families.
More than 100 million people face poverty and social exclusion in the EU. A minimum wage would offer a safety net as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to pull millions more into the poverty trap.
A dramatic U-turn in the UK
On 12 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The following day, whilst mainland Europe was shutting down schools, cancelling flights and imposing strict quarantines, the British government employed a “herd immunity” strategy. PM Boris Johnson, who had dismissed the experts during the Brexit referendum campaign, was now heavily relying on the opinion of his own expert advisers.
Johnson appeared not to understand the urgency of the situation; his plan was callous and dangerous. He seemed to believe that the health of the economy was more relevant than the health of the population – profit and wealth more important than human lives. His initial approach meant that tens of thousands of people, especially older adults, would be sacrificed for the sake of the economy. As casualties increased exponentially and the NHS was on the verge of collapse, Johnson had to do a U-turn and put the country on lockdown from 24 March.
The NHS called for an optimal number of 250,000 volunteers to sign up to help seniors, people who were isolating and medical staff who needed deliveries. The response was overwhelmingly positive; more than three times that many volunteers signed up. Soon after, a website was launched listing several hundred new mutual aid groups across the country.
As the crisis unfolded, there have been countless acts of kindness and solidarity. However, there have also been acts of carelessness and selfishness – sometimes from people in positions of power. Dominic Cummings (the PM’s chief adviser) broke the law on public health to do exactly as he liked, and subsequently received the support of the British Government for doing so. This has interfered with proper investigation and proper due process.
Of course, Cummings must stay in Number 10 to deliver the purest Brexit regardless. He is indeed tasked with keeping a foot on the accelerator pedal as the cliff-edge comes into view. Cummings is said to keep the PM “honest” on Brexit. That is not honesty in the commonly understood sense of the word, involving verifiable truth; it is loyalty to an idea of Brexit, for the sake of which all dishonesties are permitted. Apparently, the higher truth of national liberation cancels out any devious means used to achieve it.
The anxiety and confusion of the first moments of the pandemic in the UK contributed to a generalised reaction of panic, which resulted in the sudden emptying of supermarket shelves. In particular, the toilet paper crisis that lasted several weeks could be seen as an example of collective psychosis. In a way, it was also a powerful metaphor for the excrements that human beings produce in situations of intense undigested fear. In contrast to that emotional diarrhoea, many volunteers bought food and delivered it to the door of their elderly neighbours.
It should also be noticed that some patients with Covid-19 have experienced gastrointestinal symptoms, particularly diarrhoea, as the first sign of the illness.
On 25 June, as lockdown eased and temperatures in England reached 33 degrees Celsius, thousands of Britons left their homes to enjoy the good weather by the sea; some behaved like hooligans. The following morning, 15 tonnes of litter had to be removed from the beaches on the Kent coast, which led to a demand from the local authorities that people take their rubbish home on future visits to the beach.
There are many other instances of lights and shadows in the handling of the health emergency. The creation and circulation of protective masks can be a good illustration of sharp contrasting reactions. The pandemic has generated a whole spectrum of mask economies from generous domestic production to corrupt profiteering and outright theft. Many people have generously made masks at home for distribution gratis, whilst others have gone into bulk production for massive profit-making.
Fortunately, creative and generous altruism have predominated over destructive selfishness. Solnit (2020b) emphasised that the Covid-19 tragedy has generated collective and empathic urges and actions of mutual aid. It is everywhere, aid offered in a spirit of solidarity and reciprocity, often emerging from struggling communities.
We are seeing new or renewed forms of generosity that resemble war-like altruistic engagement (volunteer coalitions organising food distribution, online social and professional networking, donations, support and outreach). In a crisis like this, solidarity and mutual aid emphasise that we are together and have strength and capacity to care for ourselves. We also need to have enough public health and social resources available to be able to do so.
The concept of mutual aid was formulated by the Russian biologist, philosopher and sociologist Peter Kropotkin at the beginning of the 20th century. He argued that aiding and protecting others, and serving the needs of the group rather than the individual, has been essential to the survival of many species and has been evident in early and traditional human societies.
Kropotkin further argued that cooperation is as important as competition, and that the highest achievements of the human race have been the result of group collaboration and of group attachment. According to him, besides a law of mutual struggle, there is in Nature a law of mutual aid – which is far more important than mutual contest.
Disasters can indeed change social consciousness and priorities. At a global level, the pandemic has in some way resurrected one of the mottos of the hippy revolution of the 1960s: “Be realistic, ask for the impossible”. Covid-19 has shown that things we were told would never happen, and could never happen, have actually happened:
Within a few weeks into the pandemic, Ireland nationalised its private hospitals, Canada gave four months of basic income to those who lost their jobs, Germany paid out €1.3 billion to the self-employed and to small businesses, Portugal decided to treat immigrants and asylum seekers as full citizens, and carbon emissions suddenly plummeted… (The list is longer).
The ongoing crisis is an opportunity for universal recognition that there must be enough food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education for all – and that access to these things should not depend on what job you do and on whether or not you earn enough money. Hope for change can coexist with difficulty and suffering: it is not optimism that everything will be fine regardless, but a positive internal force that helps us keep going amid the uncertainty ahead.
There are now pressing messages from some politicians about the importance of going back to a previous state of “normality”. One of the dangers is to believe that everything was fine before the coronavirus crisis, and that all we need to do is returning to things as they were. Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality.
The coronavirus crisis has resulted in a full-blown health, social and economic emergency in the UK, in the EU, and in many other countries across the world. There are lights and shadows; full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.
The people most affected and threatened by the coronavirus have turned out to be the elderly, the poor, the black community, and the immigrants. Within the current structures, there is no way to protect everyone from the virus. Consciously and unconsciously decisions have been made about which lives should be saved and which should not. Besides, the NHS has now to deal with a backlog of problems, while Covid-19 is still an ongoing threat. We might be storing up further trauma for the future.
It is too soon to know the outcome of the pandemic, but not too soon to start looking for better ways of survival for all. Before the pandemic, everyday life was a disaster for billions of people and, so, the end of the current crisis should not mean going back to how things were; it should mark the beginning of something drastically different. A new collective agreement must emerge from this emergency.
It is our collective responsibility to become involved at some level in the politics of attachment, and to contribute in different ways to turning the coronavirus political tide towards the creation of a kind of society that can be perceived as a secure-enough base.
*Arturo Ezquerro, a London-based consultant psychiatrist, psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and group analyst, is a long standing and active member of the British Spanish Society, as well as honorary member of the World Association of International Studies and of the International Attachment Network (for promoting an attachment ethos in the understanding of human development and group relations).
To read the Spanish version, published in La Vanguardia, click here
Please note that the opinions expressed throughout this article represents those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the BritishSpanish Society or their supporters.