It is now certain. We will emerge from lockdown grieving for those lost and yearning for our previous lives, only to crash into a recession. As much as we dream of visiting our favourite cafe or pub, it’s not clear they will remain after the virus has run its course.
Already reality heaves into view. The hospitality industry is being battered. One in four restaurants in the US is expected never to reopen. Amazon is finishing off the retail sector. Small businesses, cafes, online retailers and clothes designers are struggling. Loved and carefully nurtured ventures, operating on the thinnest of margins, are dying out. Every few days another one of them posts its goodbyes. We think of the world as how we left it. But that world is gone.
So now what? Conventional wisdom has changed almost overnight. The words “the pandemic has exposed” have become a mantra, as existing fractures (apparent as they were to some of us) are revealed to all. The pandemic exposed our failing healthcare systems; the disparity between the perception of immigrants as a drain and the reality of them as pillars of our communities; the gulf between races and classes; the incompetence of our politicians; the fatal consequences of diminishing public services.
Even establishment bastions turned against the current political order. The Financial Times wrote that “radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table”. Emily Maitlis looked straight at the BBC Newsnight camera and slated the inequalities of the pandemic. Rightwing governments in Britain and the US scrambled to pay people to stay at home. Surely, all these things point to a revolution.
The rupturing effects of the lockdown appear to be laying the foundations for our new world. “Nature is healing” is now a meme. The air is cleaning itself. As we clap each Thursday, the old hierarchies that defined “skilled” and “unskilled” seem to be dissolving. Some hold out for further changes, anticipating the introduction of low-carbon jobs to replace those lost, or a universal basic income, or rethinking the value of labour altogether.
But observation alone does not bring about transformation. There is a naivety in the hope that once ideas are discussed and made popular, they will permeate policymaking and bring about change. History shows us that, during a period of economic upheaval, this is unlikely. The 2008 financial crisis is the clearest cautionary tale.
In reality, the first thing that happens in a recession tends not to be radical reengineering of the economy. The first impulse is to make a quick calculation: who should be saved and who is dispensable. In the US after the 2008 crash, the banks were recapitalised and the economy stabilised, and 10 million Americans lost their homes. The only factor that mattered was how many people could be lost without disrupting the economy for everyone else.
That question is already being asked with regard to the current lockdown. How many deaths can we afford before the economy suffers? Who are we happy to sacrifice, so that the rest of us can thrive? In the UK, the answer to that second question has been those already disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The working classes, the cleaners, the construction workers – the manual levers of the economy – have become the canaries, sent back down the coal mine to test the first stage of lockdown easing. If infections surge, it will hit them first.
If the loss of life is at a level deemed acceptable by big business and government, the focus will shift to moving on while minimising the need for change. The old order – that some are already writing eulogies for – will surge back rather than retreating. We will be told that deep-rooted reform is not necessary because this is an unprecedented crisis, an unforeseen event, a once-in-a-lifetime shock. Any failings are merely opportunities to learn lessons, as the prime minister’s deputy, Dominic Raab, is fond of saying: lessons about how to respond to an exact similar threat rather than reflect on the reason it was allowed to take hold in the first place.
The language of a resilient infrastructure doing its best is deliberate – useful in creating the impression that once the pandemic passes, so does the problem. Failures in the care sector are “challenges”; the NHS, rather than being underfunded and weakened, has been a success because it has not been overwhelmed, ignoring the infected patients who were shipped out from hospitals to care homes to spread the deadly virus to the most frail.
Fuelled by dissembling and denial, the country lurches forward with a broken economy, a depleted public sector, an underpaid and underprotected class of workers, and a vilified migrant population.
In the final stages, policies to help the vulnerable launched at the start of the pandemic will be quietly jettisoned. A pledge to review the NHS surcharge for foreign doctors has come to nothing. A popular programme to house homeless people in England in hotels was quietly scrapped last week. The homeless returning to the streets will be joined by others sent there by the economic downturn. They will be scapegoated, along with the rest of the dispensable victims.
After this will come the scapegoating of the vulnerable. Who took more than their share in furlough? Who wasn’t alert? A chorus of reactionary voices is already lining up for this task.
None of this inevitable, but it is all likely if we are not vigilant. History shows us that whatever horrors a crisis exposes, they can be covered up in the shattered aftermath. Yes, we must imagine the new world that needs to come out of this crisis: but it will not come to pass without a fight.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist