When this is all over, let’s not forget how irresponsible free-market capitalism failed us.

Date: 5 May, 2020  | Organisation: Christian Aid 

In the face of a pandemic, the invisible hand has been shown to be ill-equipped, incompetent and cruel – capable of little more than grabbing frantically for toilet paper and pasta.

As markets collapsed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, governments around the world were forced (often begrudgingly) to release vast amounts of money to support individuals and businesses and to implement policies that, just a few months ago, would have been written off as implausible.

It’s important, then, that when all this is over, we don’t forget how poorly irresponsible free-market capitalism prepared us for this crisis – despite our government knowing, for at least three years, that something like this could happen and that we were not prepared for it. 

The tragedy is that things had to get this bad before policies aimed at supporting the most vulnerable were taken seriously. And, even now, they’re being taken seriously only because continuing not to implement them threatens to hurt society’s most privileged.

For example, take homelessness. In the UK, the homeless are rivalled only by Starbucks and Pret-a-Manger as the highstreets’ most ubiquitous feature. Yet, despite their conspicuousness, for years we’ve been happy to let the homeless continue to live – and die – on our streets, mollifying ourselves and each other with claims that solving the homelessness crisis would be impossible – “too expensive”, “a logistical nightmare”, “an unfortunate blip in an otherwise healthy housing market”. (You can read more about the financialization of housing in CFJ’s Spotlight on Financial Justice report.)

Then the coronavirus made homeless people dangerous. And, within weeks, we launched plans to house all rough sleepers in England. Self-preservation, it seems, makes the impossible possible.

Similarly, years of underfunding our NHS and flirting with privatisation – even handing control of it to a man who co-authored a book arguing it should be replaced with private insurance – have left it woefully under resourced.

Today, the true cost of this long-term neglect is clear. It’s part of the reason we’re asking retired healthcare practitioners (many of whom are classed as “vulnerable”) to return to work. It’s part of the reason frontline health workers are being forced to risk their lives by working without adequate PPE.

Seeing these failings, many of us have chosen to take matters into our own hands and fundraise for the NHS. While it’s heart-warming to see the likes of 99-year-old Capt. Tom raise £26m for our health service, should this responsibility really fall on the shoulders of a World War Two veteran? Should it fall on any of us?

Absolutely not. We have already paid for it. The trouble is, not all of us have paid our fair share.

Our governments collectively lose between $500bn and $600bn a year to corporate tax dodging, and $7trn of private wealth is hidden offshore. Effective taxation would have allowed these funds to have been used to better equip our health and social care systems – instead, even now, they remain tucked away in offshore accounts.

At the same time, years of austerity have taken our healthcare system dangerously close to the point of failure – with many paying with their lives and their health even before the coronavirus crisis hit.

A properly funded NHS would, no question, have been better able to tackle this crisis. Don’t let that fact be obscured by whipped-up feelings of feelgoodery, fundraising drives and claims that “we’re all in this together”. Because, the truth is, we’re not.

Coronavirus is not some great equaliser. As usual, it’s the poor and the precarious – our cleaners, retail workers, care workers, public transport workers and delivery drivers – who will feel the impact of this crisis most, many of whom, despite being valued least by our markets, have now been classed as “key workers” and are putting themselves in harm’s way every day for as little as £6.45 an hour.

So, as we watch a company set up by a man worth $4bn encourage us to run to raise money for the NHS, bear all this in mind. Bear in mind the years of systematic tax dodging that same company undertook. Bear in mind the time it chose to sue the NHS. Bear in mind that the price of all those miles run – all that sweat and all those aching muscles – is just four million pounds (that’s 0.4 percent of that founder’s net worth). And bear in mind that this company – and this man – is just one of many in a system that, all too often, is too quick to forgive and forget.

When this is all over, and the dust has settled, let’s not forget how irresponsible free-market capitalism failed us – how it failed to eliminate issues of inequality, how it failed to prepare us for this crisis, how it failed to protect our economy and how it failed to protect the institutions of which we should be most proud.

Let’s not forget so that we can bolster support for our most vulnerable, force the mega-rich and multinationals to pay their dues and to make sure we do not make the same mistakes again.