Thousands of septuagenarians across the land – like myself – are today contemplating months of self-isolation, a totally new and challenging experience. Younger folk, too, are learning how to reorder their own lives and those of their loved ones. For many, this is not an impersonal national crisis, but the most intense personal crisis they have ever experienced.
Deep fears manifest themselves in different ways – anxiety, irritation, frustration, anger and gloom, not to mention a fair share of gallows humour. Thank God, altruism also shines through in abundance.
Although bombs are not falling, it is like a war in this respect – the usual multiplicity of our daily concerns is suppressed in order to face a single enemy, albeit a microscopic one.
War analogies have been commonplace in recent days and weeks, but one fact that is often forgotten is that people began to think seriously of what would follow the second world war – not at the war’s end, but it’s beginning.
In 1941, the very year that Swansea suffered the worst of the blitz, on the 10th of June – 12 days before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union – the wartime coalition announced the creation of an inter-departmental committee to look at existing schemes of social insurance.
Under its chairman, William Beveridge, a Liberal economist, this committee produced the blueprint for the post-war welfare state. The report was published in November 1942 – the same month as the allied victory at El Alamein – and was implemented by the Atlee government at the war’s end.
One of the lessons that we must surely draw is that it is never too early to start thinking of the ways in which we might create a better world when this particular crisis subsides. Even amidst our urgent preoccupations, this is a time to open our minds not to close them.
Beveridge certainly exceeded the brief he was given, producing a report of immense significance that aimed to kill five ‘giant evils’: “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.”
No-one can say that all those evils have been eliminated. If anything, in recent years too many, have made a comeback, partly because the public and political consensus that, eventually, saw Beveridge’s proposals become embedded in our national life, has been lost.
In this country, the left in politics has always had an ideological underpinning, usually tempered by the stubborn fact of public scepticism and resistance. The right, too, is not without its ideologues, and in the last 30-40 years, they have triumphed over a post-war conservative pragmatism that survived at least until 1979. In recent years, consensus – to the left and right – has been sacrificed on the altar of dogma.
That is not what will be needed by a country and an economy hurt and chastened by pandemic. Fate could not have delivered a sharper riposte to those pledging loudly to ‘take back control’.
Beveridge was responding not just to the sacrifices of war, bloody and immediate though they would have seemed, but to the immense privations of the 1920s and 1930s and the inadequate responses of governments. In the same way, when this pandemic subsides we will need to respond not only to lingering viral threats but also to a decade of austerity and its causes and consequences.
That decade has seen inequality within and across countries and continents grow to an obscene degree, as many governments have sought as a matter of ideology to shrink the state. We will need to revive Beveridge’s goal of “a comprehensive policy of social progress…..achieved by co-operation between the state and the individual.”
In this country, we will need to ask ourselves why we have fewer doctors per 1,000 people than many other countries, including our erstwhile partners in Europe. The UK has 2.85 doctors per 1,000 against Germany’s 4.25, Italy’s 3.99, Spain’s 3.88, France’s 3.37 and Ireland’s 3.18. The US has a meagre 2.61.
The same is true when we look at acute beds per 1,000 people: Japan’s 7.8, South Korea’s 7.1, Germany’s 6, France’s 3.1, Ireland’s 2.8 against the UK’s 2.1. In this, even the US is marginally better than us at 2.4. This is what ideology and its equally heartless child, austerity, have done.
Such statistics, as well as the respective natures of the health systems of Europe and America, tell us that there is a difference between European and American values. That difference is further evidenced in the US, in the battle for the Democratic nomination, where Bernie Sanders’ has struggled to make his case for a European style public health service, even as the pandemic grows in his own ill-equipped country.
The experience of this pandemic will not only force us to reassess the capacity of our own health service it should also force us to alter the way we think about our society and, as Gordon Brown has reminded us, of our capacity for international action.
The stark contrast that Mr Brown has been able to draw between the extent of co-ordinated international action at the time of the 2007-08 financial crisis – in which he played a decisive role – and today’s focus solely on raising each national drawbridge is truly dispiriting.
Societies everywhere have had to face a bombardment from every quarter – globalisation, technological change, the decline in manufacturing, the precariousness of employment, the unbridled primacy of finance, the effects of the crash of 2007-8, gross individual and regional inequalities, worldwide movements of population, and the rise of populism.
To defend ourselves against this varied and damaging ordnance governments have too often resorted to ineffective binary simplicities, not least, in this country, the controversial adoption of Brexit’s supposed breastplate.
Add to this barrage a worldwide pandemic, and one can surely see that Mr Johnson’s obduracy on the Brexit timetable is foolish and misplaced, and but a prelude to a certain retreat. The fact that the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has himself contracted the coronavirus surely puts it beyond question.
Self-isolation is the strongest possible reminder of what friends, family and community mean to us. That also applies to countries, as we are now discovering.