Image: Gary Butterfield, Unsplash

We don’t want to look back at lockdown – the rich and powerful are counting on that

Sometimes, when learning about the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic; the huge death count, the wide spread, the lifelong impact on some survivors; people would express surprise that it wasn’t talked about more. It had an incredible impact on the world and daily life for two years, then almost immediately seemed to become nothing more than a footnote at the end of the First World War. The quiet around it seemed puzzling to people reading about it in 2018.

On the four year anniversary of the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown, we wonder no longer. The worldwide appetite to move on after Covid– even though the virus is still very much active and the impact of Long Covid is still barely understood –has been unstoppable. We lived surrounded by death for a little bit. We don’t want to revisit it.

The problem is that the rich and powerful are taking full advantage of our willingness to move on to escape the consequences of the very real harm they did to our society during the pandemic. So too are politicians who promised to build back better. The result is that our society is more unequal than ever, with huge impacts on our lives.

The UK’s systems and structures allowed unscrupulous people with connections to make obscene amounts of money out of the pandemic. Our own research found that in the UK alone, billionaire wealth increased by nearly £150bn from 2020-2022; Oxfam found that by 2022 a new billionaire was being created every 30 hours while a million people fell into poverty. Research by Unite the Union found that FTSE 350 companies saw a 73% increase in profits through the pandemic – excessive profits that the IMF found led directly into the inflation hike and the cost-of-living crisis. Reporting from Private Eye showed that hundreds of millions of PPE funds went astray; £4bn of faulty PPE was written off, and government minsters are still caught up in allegations of cronyism. £37bn was spent on a test and trace system that failed to help curb the pandemic even though other countries managed to do this successfully at a fraction of the cost due the political choices our government made.

Open profiteering at our expense should make us all very angry; instead, there’s a sense of weary resignation to the coverage (one 2022 article in The Week asked if ‘your eyes glaze over at the words “PPE” and “Covid contracts”’, and things haven’t improved). Nobody expects anyone to face justice for this, nor any action on the vast inequality that made it possible. 

These vast profits were a very different experience from the pandemic many of us experienced. Inequality left many communities and whole swathes of the UK vulnerable to a crisis. When one hit, working-age people in the poorest areas of the country were almost four times more likely to die than those in the wealthiest areas; the same pattern repeated in care homes. The disproportionate impact extended well beyond health, too; migrants from ethnic minority communities were three times more likely to lose their job during the pandemic and people with disabilities struggled much more with the demands of lockdown, as supermarkets became inaccessible and care much harder to access.

The crisis of the pandemic and lockdown exposed the consequences of inequality on our daily lives; the differences were incredibly visible each day. Bosses would talk about everyone being cooped up at home on Zoom calls against a backdrop of acres-wide private studies, while junior staff wedged themselves in cupboards or juggled their families behind the camera. We could see how Black people were treated by police in public (where they were three times more likely to receive Covid fines) and the protests from key workers like bus drivers, who were left without protection.

No wonder politicians promised that society after the pandemic would “Build Back Better.” But despite that slogan appearing on every podium, our politicians couldn’t (or wouldn’t) imagine a more equal society. 

Take the British Recovery Bonds that Keir Starmer launched in 2021. They were billed as his true economic vision, and launched in a massive set piece speech. He described them as part of a new spirit of 1945-style national reinvention after Covid: “[The] pandemic has pulled back the curtain on that way of doing things. This must now be a moment to think again about the country that we want to be. A call to arms – like the Beveridge Report was in the 1940s. A chance to diagnose the condition of Britain.” The policy itself, a fairly thin rebadging of National Savings and Investments Bonds, did not meet the ambition of the rhetoric and, after the launch, nobody ever mentioned British Recovery Bonds again. I may be the only person to remember them. The government turned to an economic plan modelled after the American Build Back Better Bill (which would eventually evolve into the Inflation Reduction Act) which promised massive investment in green jobs, infrastructure, and levelling up. This was all cancelled before it could begin, as successive Prime Ministers deemed transport in northern cities and green industry a waste of money.

It’s not just that our political class couldn’t muster a better response to a clear, systemic crisis; it’s also that even that was abandoned in favour of reviving austerity economics. What we needed, then and now, is clear and popular: taxing the wealthiest, investing in public services and people, nationalising failing utilities, and community wealth building. Polling now says that voters think our parties have no answers to the crises facing us because they haven’t embraced this agenda.

We may not want to think about the pandemic, but people in this country still have a burning sense of the injustice of it and want a more equal country. And a more equal country isn’t some luxury we can think about if and when the government decides we can loosen austerity. Inequality is what’s holding us back from economic growth and thriving communities: it’s hurting our education system, increasing our crime rates, preventing people working, buying homes or starting businesses. It very directly makes us all sicker.

Dario Goodwin, Senior Digital Engagement Manager