The Covid-19 crisis came well and truly out of the blue

If we go back to the start of December 2019, the UK was braced for a general election and the ability of a nation to respond to a pandemic was a question that was not on anyone’s lips. Indeed, try as Labour might, even making the NHS, or the climate crisis key aspects of the electoral discourse proved hard. For December 2019 was about one thing and one thing only for so many: Brexit, getting it done and deals or no deals. Fast forward through the first quarter of the next year and the global political, social and economic landscape has shifted beyond recognition.

The notions of lockdown Britain and our Covid-19 testing shambles would have been seen as the stuff of science fiction.

The world watched with a degree of skeptical shock as Wuhan was thrust into a seemingly draconian lockdown by the Covid-19 crisis in early 2020. The idea that this couldn’t and wouldn’t happen 'here' was prevalent across the globe but countries still reacted very differently. The feeling of innate safety and subsequent inertia was none more so the case than in the UK; after all, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS ) hadn’t killed the tens of millions some forecasters were predicting in 2003 and Swine Flu didn’t kill 65,000 Brits in 2009 as it was predicted by some as illustrated in The Guardian.

Surely then, this crisis too would all blow over. It didn't. Even so, in February, Boris Johnson was still proudly boasting about shaking hands with the first wave of Covid-19 patients in the UK. This arrogant attitude set in place a slow response in the UK as the crisis began to unfold. While the UK was wasting time, other countries - spurred on by Chinese data and a worsening situation in Italy - began to deploy policies and tailor decision making toward effective pandemic mitigation.

Some governments have been able to show a more effective response is possible

Countries including South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, allocated vast amounts of resources to track, trace and quarantine the virus. In Europe, Germany and Sweden were gearing up to perform staggering numbers of tests as political and industrial-strength were wielded to meet the WHO’s rallying call to “test test test” (WHO, 2020).

Whilst shaken, well-prepared countries have still managed to show that Covid-19 mitigation is possible. Sadly the UK is very far from a best-practice example, a fact that has been illustrated clearly in The Guardian's recent coverage. This chronic lack of preparedness at all levels should be of no surprise to Conservative Britain. The effects of decade-long austerity have left the NHS struggling to cope with day-to-day life. Efforts to shrink and re-mold the nation-state have left the UK with a shambolic and pernicious benefit system and an ersatz healthcare system. Just as more of us than ever turn to Universal Credit and the NHS, the true face of Tory Britain is swiftly revealed. Things will be hard for so many for a considerable length of time.

It should be no surprise at all that in this crisis that we are sending brave key workers into life or death situations in overcrowded ICUs, with inadequate and even homemade protective equipment. All of this is under a backdrop where our national capacity to test and ventilate – two key facets of the Covid-19 crisis response – are massively lacking. This is the impact of austerity - the impact of unchecked neoliberalism. As we line the streets to clap our key workers on Thursday evenings, an increasing number of us will know that too many of them have been let down, lives will be lost needlessly.

The events that have led up to 2020 have left the UK highly vulnerable to the crisis at hand. Our underfunded institutions have been asked to bear the brunt, the state has been asked to prop-up an economy once more – just as in 2008.

Yet again it is shown that market forces can’t help us in a crisis. Nor can decades’ worth of tax cuts and dismantling of public services.

However, there is some hope still to be found.

The strength shown by various community groups in response to a crisis that has been enormously damaging at every level of life means that the role of the state in the future may not be so easy to diminish.

It will be hard and clearly wrong if, post-crisis, capitalist forces were to remerge as big, bold and unchecked as ever before. We need positive state involvement in social and economic affairs; it is a matter of life and death. Some, including Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian's Long Read, have argued that in the midst of fear during a catastrophe, an opportunity arises. Let's hope we can seize upon it.