What value do we place on life and work?

The COVID-19 crisis is a mirror that vividly reveals what value our society places on the life of the elderly and the work of health and social care workers.

There has been so much spoken written about the COVID-19 crisis that it would be pointless to repeat the arguments from every side of the spectrum. Boris Johnson and his ministers have had free play in dominating the political agenda. Right from the start, Johnson used a 15 second soundbite crafted by his spin doctors to capture the evening TV newscasts and the next day’s front pages. The daily briefings have become an instrument of political propaganda where a numbers theatre was enacted and the politics of fear embedded.

How did our society value human life during this crisis? It is not up to an individual to measure the worth of lives. Neither is it a matter of a mere economic calculus. We can tell how lives are valued by the action we as a society take based on the policies that are put in place.

Right from the beginning, the slogan was ‘Save the NHS’.There was a political calculation, based on the anxiety of the government, that the NHS would be overwhelmed given its current capacity which had been reduced drastically over the last 10 years of austerity. The NHS had lost 17,000 beds and tens of acute hospital services had been closed through mergers. There was also a staffing crisis with 10,000 doctor and 40,000 nurse vacancies. For the party which had set upon dismantling the NHS with the landmark Health and Social Care Act of 2012, it was a bit of a cheek now to ‘Save the NHS’. Of course the slogan worked well because the public at large still believes in the NHS.

So right from start, care homes were excluded. They were not part of the NHS but the responsibility of local councils which are required to outsource them to provide providers. Nonetheless, if the national priority was to save lives, then the residents of care homes and their staff should have been given the highest protection since it was well known that fatalities were the highest in those over 80 years old.

Care homes were quarantined so that the vulnerable could not receive appropriate medical care, let alone GP visits. To free up NHS beds, the elderly were often returned to care homes without being tested for the COVID-19 infection. This led in some cases to infection of others. The staff were not supplied with appropriate PPE and were them selves vulnerable to the infection and if infected likely to spread it.

The deaths in care homes were not counted from January to nearly the end of April and not included in the numbers at the daily briefings which focused on hospital deaths. This was a scandal. Besides COVID-19 deaths, many elderly people have died because of lack of medical care for other critical conditions.

There are attempts to rewrite history by politicians who suggest that there was a protective ring around care homes. Nothing can be further from the truth. Everything points to the fact that the lives of the vulnerable in care homes were of little value.

When reports began to emerge about health workers, doctors and nurses dying because of COVID-19 infections, the government was not collating information on such deaths. It took some time before those who died were named by the press. Initially, ministers were reported questioning whether doctors who died got their infection in a work related situation.

When health workers reported that they did not have full PPE protection, the government launched a drive using military logistics to ensure that hospitals received the supply. Yet it was found out that the stockpile that was set up in 2009 for a possible pandemic had not been replenished and thousands of items were beyond their shelf life. Best before dates were relabelled with the government claiming that they were retested without making the results public. The government then launched an emergency operation to purchase the necessary PPE from countries such as Turkey. Items purchased were later found not to meet the standards.

Weeks went by when the frontline workers were not getting PPE at the required level. This was a failure that caused unnecessary deaths. A government which cared for the lives of frontline health workers would have never put their lives at risk. It was doctors and nurses who were at risk, not the managers in the offices running the hospitals.

Does our society value the work of junior doctors, nurses, support staff and care workers? Just look at the way junior doctors were treated over their contracts back in 2016 when new working arrangements were imposed on them ignoring many issues of safety and stress on the pretext of providing a 7-day service.

Nurses have been the victims of a decade of ‘efficiency savings’ in the NHS with their pay frozen pay for 10 years. The replacement of bursaries by loans has left many of them in debt. Hospital cleaners were outsourced to private companies 30 years ago. The companies often pay them barely a living wage.

Care workers have been described as ‘unskilled’ when they have to look after the varying and complex needs of the elderly. They are employed by private providers who pay them low wages and fail to give them appropriate training. Those care workers supporting the elderly in their own homes work under immense stress, with employers applying time and motion methods.

The last thirty years of the hegemony of neoliberalism has always emphasized ‘value for money’ and ‘added value’ with an utter determination to reduce everything to monetary value. How under these conditions can we expect individuals and society to think in terms of the value of human life?

Many of the questions raised here cannot be answered by words but only by action, by creating a more humane society in which health and care services will be fully funded and publicly owned and run.

Published in Labour Briefing 6 April 2020


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