Pandemic-poverty and social change
Being as terribly, terribly British as I am, I hate talking about money. Other than the usual everyday fuck-it-I’m-broke statement that has blanket-covered my finances since the dawn of time, I tend to get squirmy and uncomfortable if anyone outside (or sometimes even inside) my immediate family wants to get down to financial brass tacks. Cos we just don’t talk about that sort of thing. Having spent long periods of my life either un or under-employed, as well as growing up horribly, embarrassingly poor, I’m also used to the weight of financial worry permeating my every heartbeat while trying to go about life as normal and coping with being the poor friend/relation with as much of a smile on my face as I can manage. The real kicker is that for once I had just about got my financial ducks in a row before this whole thing kicked off, but now, like 26million other folks in this country whose livelihoods depend on tourism, hospitality, entertainment, fashion, beauty, culture, fitness and god knows how many other industries, I am well and truly up the spout. I probably should be panicking more than I am, and I definitely should be buying less beer, but for some reason my usual panic buttons just aren’t kicking in. it may be because, for once, I’m not alone in this, and I don’t just mean having lovely JB in my life. This time, I don’t have to pretend not to be poor. I don’t have to pretend that my life and my income aren’t fucked. I don’t have to smile and lie while my stomach does backflips over how I’m going to make it through the next month, and I don’t have to look away awkwardly when someone asks me how things are.
I’m not saying I’m glad everyone else is in the same boat as me – I wish none of us were in it. I wish there wasn’t even a boat. I wish the world could go back to normal in a goddamn heartbeat. I think what I’m saying is that for the first time, I’m not ashamed to be poor, I don’t feel like it’s my fault, like I did something wrong, that I’m a deficient human being because of the way our society tells us that if we don’t have money it must be because of something we did, something we need to fix about ourselves and our lives. In this situation we can’t fix anything. We can’t make jobs that simply are not there because they are not safe, and we can’t suddenly become experts in things we don’t understand. Yes, some of us could and probably will retrain, but one fact that has come out of this situation with enormous clarity is that no sector (with the exception of healthcare, up to a point) is completely safe – who knows what the next disaster of biblical proportions will entail? Right now, a world without the internet or even electricity doesn’t seem impossible. Anything really can happen.
Being poor has always made me feel that I’m worthless. Not having a stable, respectable career has made me feel lesser and ashamed. Investing hard in my working life and seeing it fall apart around me way before any of this happened nearly broke me to pieces, so I know better than anyone how hard this is for every person who thought they knew what they were doing with their life and suddenly had it all taken away. The world isn’t fair, it just isn’t, and hard work does not necessarily pay off. With most of us (there are of course the obvious exceptions) in something vaguely resembling the same boat, for once no one is talking about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, getting on our bikes or showing bloody initiative. Finally, the economy is being seen for what it really is, a mostly arbitrary system with a fluctuating list of winners and losers whose status depends primarily on factors beyond their own control. The concept of a universal basic income is no longer being derided as commie propaganda, and medicare for all is winning new advocates daily. In the UK, the NHS has now acquired a semi-religious status when just months ago it was frittering out of our fingers into private hands without the majority of the population batting an eyelid. The difference between needs and wants is being thrown into sharp relief, and the responsibility of the state to its people is no longer a just concept to be debated, it is a reality which requires immediate action.
As our economies shrink and unemployment skyrockets, talking about money, about being afraid and uncomfortable, about feeling helpless and angry, is no longer shameful or embarrassing. The correlation of poverty and fault is being shown up as nothing but a construct of the successful and the privileged, a tool to abrogate state and corporate responsibility. A stick to beat the unlucky with. Being poor doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you are lazy or stupid or worthless. It doesn’t equal lacking life skills or making poor career choices. All it means is that you have been unlucky, that you have lost this roll of the dice, and maybe the one before, and the one before that. Yes, some people are better able to cope and pull themselves up from those losses than others, but even being blessed with that characteristic and/or having someone in your life to nurture it is down to little more than luck. As much as I would like to believe that something good will come out of all this suffering, that real change is afoot, history clearly dictates otherwise. Undoubtedly, once this is all over, the powers that be will do their best to sweep our memories of this moment under the carpet and reinstall the same old creaking economic structure of haves and have-nots, waving individual incentives under our noses, and each of us will run straight back in like children determined to snatch the biggest portion of candy, wilfully oblivious to the poison it contains. For now at least, we are all in this together, so lets not be ashamed of our poverty and our fear and let’s demand solutions from our leaders that reflect our value as human beings.