The Covid-19 pandemic in the UK has been characterised by a staggering number of deaths and hospitalisations, record levels of demand at food banks, shortfalls in stable accommodation for the huge number of unhoused rough sleepers, and a wide range of other social and economic problems. Yet the incredible hardships faced by some during the pandemic were not inevitable outcomes of an unforeseen public health crisis. Nor was it unfeasible to plan for a large-scale public health emergency.
The range and severity of problems highlighted by Covid reflect a decades-long programme of systematic neglect and destruction of social support by successive governments. The abandonment of social support was justified by neoliberal ideology – that is, an ideology that prioritises economic competitiveness above all else
Neoliberalism (disingenuously) asserts markets are superior to state systems at fulfilling human needs, and advocates for minimal state provision on this basis. As a result, we see massive reductions in regulation of businesses while social assistance has been withdrawn from all but those deemed most “deserving”. This contradiction – of the freedom (from regulation) for businesses, which receive state funding, and the high levels of surveillance and compliance expected of individuals in receipt of increasingly miserly state assistance – characterises the neoliberal approach.
Despite neoliberal claims that prioritising economic competitiveness would benefit all, we instead see increasing poverty, food insecurity, housing precariousness, a struggling NHS and numerous other inequalities. Wealth has been concentrated at the top, while those at the bottom increasingly struggle to afford the basics. Those who struggle are dismissed, seen as individually responsible for their situation, with no regard for the role of structural inequalities.
At the root of the longstanding problems is a perverse and pervasive rhetoric that suggests good things come to those who work, and those who don’t have good things must not be productive members of society
As social support has been dismantled, charities have tried to fill the gap. Unfortunately charities suffer from a range of issues (for example, instability introduced by reliance on donations, which may decline precisely when they are most needed), meaning while they may be able to treat some symptoms of a decimated social system, they cannot resolve the root causes of these symptoms. Likewise, technological solutions are frequently used to repair damage created by cuts to necessary systems, often with limited regulation and inadequate attention to the potential pitfalls of techno-fix solutions, such as using AI to diagnose health problems when more doctors and nurses would be better. Even more troublingly, these solutions may offer a pressure valve on a failing state system, providing tools to optimise cannibalised infrastructures rather than repair them.
At the root of the longstanding problems highlighted by Covid-19 is a perverse and pervasive rhetoric that suggests good things come to those who work, and those who don’t have good things must simply not be productive members of society. This idea is easily disproved by our high rates of in-work poverty, as well as by the countless hours of unpaid work (disproportionately performed by women) involved in bearing and rearing children and other essential caring tasks that keep the economy running. If we want a more just and equitable society, the only viable way forward is to reject the neoliberal rhetoric that suggests people are only as valuable as their productive capacity in the narrow confines of paid work.
A human rights framework allows us to move beyond harmful productivity rhetoric. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established an international standard for what all human beings (regardless of their “productivity”) have a right to access in society. Among many rights outlined are medical care, food, housing and other necessary social services – which are increasingly mediated by digital technologies not everyone can access or afford. The importance of these rights, and the human suffering that results when they are not adequately safeguarded, have been forcefully demonstrated during the pandemic, with marginalised members of society bearing the brunt of the disease, including but not limited to significantly higher rates of illness and death.
The Covid pandemic has highlighted the intertwined nature of our lives, and the need for state intervention. It has significantly broadened the population of people using social assistance, undermining deserving/undeserving distinctions. The pandemic even prompted Boris Johnson to acknowledge that “there really is such a thing as society”. We hope that this shared experience can once again bring about support for social policy that emphasises meeting human needs. Evidence so far, particularly the removal of the £20 increase to Universal Credit, demonstrates that this will not be easy. What is clear is we will not have social policy that fulfils human rights without an explicit commitment by policymakers, paired with concrete, proactive steps towards this vital aim.
Jasmine Fledderjohann is a senior lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University. Amy Clair is a research fellow at the Institute for Economic and Social Research at Essex University. Bran Knowles is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications. Their book A Watershed Moment for Social Policy and Human Rights? Where Next for the UK Post-COVID is published by Policy Press