At the beginning of this year I bumped into a fellow dog walker in a country park near our homes in Manchester. It was one of those muggy mid-January afternoons when the sky hangs low, and we were in despair. Our dogs, both energetic working breeds and in the midst of doggy adolescence, kept finding dead rats and rolling in them. We updated each other about where the latest grim findings were, and then we speculated about where they were coming from. Maybe people were putting poison out and the rats were running into the woodland to die. Maybe, my dog-walking friend joked, we were in the first stages of the apocalypse, and the random sightings of rotting rats were the earliest signals of impending doom.
Last week we bumped into each other again. This time, the sky was blue, and rather than standing together as our dogs played chase, we kept a safe distance apart.
We spoke about coronavirus, the way the world had changed so drastically in a matter of days, and the impact it was having on businesses and livelihoods. And then we remembered the rats.
This time the signs of impending doom were much clearer: a makeshift hospital being built in days; a quarter of a million volunteers called up to assist the NHS; the number of deaths rising by the day. There was no mistake about it – we were heading into strange and uncertain times.
Last week the government ordered that in order to stop the spread of the deadly Covid-19 we should stay at home. Everything suddenly changed, and overnight the workers ministers deemed “unskilled” last month when they closed the borders to migrants became the nation’s saviours.
Supermarket workers left their homes and faced gruelling long shifts restocking shelves left bare by stockpilers. Cleaners scrubbed hospital wards and classrooms full of key workers’ children. Takeaway delivery drivers reported a surge in orders after restaurants closed their doors. Warehouse staff working for minimum wage desperately packed food, pet supplies, gym equipment and books for a country facing weeks in lockdown. Couriers became the nation’s lifeline.
The rest of us, the white collar workforce, stayed at home while Britain’s “low skilled” army boarded buses and tubes, potentially putting themselves and their families at risk of infection just to earn a wage.
Under normal circumstances these workers work long hours for low pay. They move invisibly through towns and cities, settling for zero hour contracts in a precarious gig economy that doesn’t provide them and their families with a safety net when the work dries up.
The coronavirus pandemic has shined a spotlight on the insecure but vital nature of gig economy workers. It has shown us all that, during a crisis, it is these workers who keep the country going while the rest of us sit behind screens.
If the Covid-19 pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that we’ve had it all wrong. Society places high earners on a pedestal and fails to acknowledge the importance and worth of those who stack shelves, clean toilets and deliver goods. Without them, the country would collapse.
Once this is all over, when the infection stops spreading and we start seeing signs that better times are ahead, we can’t go back to living in a world that places such little value on those who stepped up in our hour of need. ν