Government policy in first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic "made classed assumptions’" according to new book

  • Date

    Thu 28 Jan 21

Front cover of Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid

Government policy in the UK largely failed to consider the impact of social class according to a new book by Professor John Preston and Dr Rhiannon Firth from the Department of Sociology at Essex.

Coronavirus, Class and Mutual Aid (Palgrave, 2020) analyses government policy, behavioural science advice to SAGE, public information, and community mutual aid projects from February to May 2020 to show how assumptions about economic and cultural resources acted to disadvantage a large proportion of the population. The book provides important insights for future Government policy and raises questions about the Government’s approach to the latest national lockdown.

Initial advice on quarantine assumed that people lived in idealised large households with multiple bathrooms and good ventilation, instead of presenting practical information in a way which reflected the reality for most people. People who could work from home, or obtain home deliveries, were implicitly presented in the advice as ‘good citizens’. Mask wearing and hand washing were important parts of the public health response to the pandemic, but these were initially presented like areas of etiquette where people were asked to tell others if they were getting it wrong.

Professor Preston and Dr Firth commented that: “The initial guidance, and behavioural models used, did not pay sufficient attention to issues of class. As a result, economic and cultural advantage was morally justified by official advice during the first wave of the pandemic. This could explain why there has been so much resistance to following these practices in the second wave as they have become associated with a moral, rather than a public health, position.”

The book also considers how working-class mutual aid groups were co-opted by local politicians or charities. These groups were often set up to benefit their own communities directly but the book suggests they were pressurised to comply with bureaucratic procedures. Professor Preston and Dr Firth commented: “There is evidence that state workers, professional bureaucrats and party politicians were trying to co-opt and de-radicalise local mutual aid efforts.”

Professor Preston and Dr Firth conclude that the pandemic has imposed ‘viral immiseration’ on the majority of the population, meaning many have seen their economic situation worsen, whereas the rich and wealthy middle classes are poised to benefit from the pandemic. This ‘immiseration’ means that people are forced to take jobs that they would not have previously considered to maintain their living standards.

They argue there are alternatives. Rather than look to the market by promoting ‘disaster capitalism’ or authoritarian government restrictions such as lockdowns and repressive policing, they suggest radical mutual aid in communities based on anarchist and / or autonomous Marxist alternatives. For example, an anarchist social centre in London was converted into a mutual aid centre providing disinfectant and gloves for people delivering food, a free clothes ‘shop’ and free bike repairs.