Sociology has multiple branches and agendas, and there is no gainsaying the need for cautious well-planned sociological research around the coronavirus pandemic (hereafter COVID). And such research takes time, almost as long sometimes as the commission that will doubtless be set up ‘in due course’ to assess what went right and what wrong in the handling of the pandemic by the government. But some questions that sociologists should be asking have much greater urgency. These necessarily have to do with the here and now. In this brief contribution I outline several questions that sociologists should be both asking and attempting to answer before it is too late.
It is certain that any future commission will be critical of the Johnson government for its tardiness and lack of clarity. This type of criticism might well fall into four categories. The first of these is delay. Right from the outset the government was slow to respond, failing both to lockdown in what leading epidemiologists advised was a timely fashion and to set up a functional test and trace system. The second concerns strategy. Part reason for the delays was the government’s initial attraction to and interpretation of ‘herd immunity’. This smacked of Social Darwinism, or the survival of the fittest. It was as if the government was willing to sacrifice vulnerable segments of the population, principally the long-term sick and disabled and the elderly, as collateral damage. The rapid accumulation of COVID-related deaths in care homes added fuel to this particular fire. Picking up on Mbembe’s (2019) notion of ‘necropolitics’ in his volume of the same title, I have suggested that it was as if care home clients were seen as comprising the ‘living dead’.
A third category concerns efficiency and effectiveness. Not only were dry runs for coping with a (possible flu) pandemic during Jeremy Hunt’s time in office failed and ignored (in 2016), so were explicit warnings about the lack of critical beds, morgue capacity and personal protective equipment (PPE) as late as 2019. And this has to be seen against the background of a decade of austerity between 2010 and 2020, during which the NHS lost funding, the privatisation of services was encouraged, there were severe staffing cuts, formal social care was all but abandoned, and central and local government monies committed to public health were slashed. Finally, mention should be made of trust. Population trust in government is a critical factor in effectively encountering pandemics. This was quickly lost, and it was lost beyond flaws around delays, strategy and efficiency and effectiveness. Johnson’s rhetoric is salient here. His celebration of test and trace as ‘world-class’ even as it was conspicuously failing to deliver is a case in point. People saw a yawning gap between promises and delivery.
But sociology has and must be heard now in my opinion, loud and clear. Moreover, drawing on the near-lost tradition of ‘muckraking sociology’, it should aim not just at being heard and educating, but at fuelling public anger against injustice, incompetence, and corruption.
It is difficult to cover all the salient issues in a brief blog, but the following stand out. First, what COVID has done is make blindingly apparent the depth of material and social inequality that, compounded by a decade of austerity, preceded its arrival and has been augmented since. This has been documented by Michael Marmot’s group, which has shown that the increase in inequality due to the impact of COVID and attendant economic measures are running along deep pre-established tracks and were in fact entirely predictable. COVID, in short, has revealed core characteristics of a society already ‘fractured’, not least by class, gender, race and (dis)ability.
Second, it must be remembered that the decade of austerity from 2010 to 2020 was characterised by cuts to health and social services capacity, which undoubtedly contributed to the poor response to COVID. A prime government criterion for (mis)calculating responses to COVID was whether the NHS could ‘cope’, but the NHS had by 2020 been systematically underfunded as part of a longstanding government plan to replace the UK’s single payer system.
Third, the government’s response to COVID has been distinguished by an appetite beyond ‘chumocracy’ and ‘cronyism’, extending to blatant corruption. This has involved, for example, the clandestine awarding of non-competitive, private contracts to friends and donors of the Conservative Party with no record of relevant accomplishment or experience. Predictably, bodies awarded such contracts – for the delivery of PPE and ‘test and trace’ in particular – have frequently failed to deliver on them. In some cases, like the deal done with Serco for test and trace, the contract apparently contained no penalty clause, meaning that if Serco failed to fulfil its terms it would still be paid in full. This corruption has been unambiguously called out in the British Medical Journal. There are currently several cases under active consideration in the courts.
Fourth, COVID has permitted an extension of the government’s executive powers, giving rise to a new, and not necessarily temporary, advance of an intransigently neoliberal form of ‘statist authoritarianism’: this represents a ramping up of what I have called the ‘class/command dynamic’, whereby that fraction of the 1% comprising the major financiers, shareholders and CEOs ‘buys’ policies from governing politicians. Indeed, as has been shown in the USA, major class interests are increasingly well represented in government.
A fifth issue links to the earlier ones. It concerns what government is doing under the cover of COVID. It is not just that the government is evolving into a type of statist authoritarianism, but that they have a longstanding agenda, not least in relation to health and health care, that COVID is allowing them to disguise and keep from political, let alone public, view and scrutiny. A supine Labour Party ‘under new management’ seems surprisingly relaxed about this. Rhetorical statements about correcting what Lansley got wrong in his – admittedly regressive – shambles of a Social Health and Care Act of 2012, should not mislead us. Hancock wears his badge and praises the NHS even as he acts to undermine it. His planned top-down ‘reforms’ will tweak the existing legislation to make it easier, not more difficult, to sell off NHS facilities and services to for-profit providers (a process that is already well underway). As I write this it is being reported that one of the UK’s biggest GP practice operators, involving 58 practices and half a million patients, has just passed into the hands of the US health insurance group Centene Corporation. The NHS is being ‘privatised by stealth’.
A final issue in this short piece concerns sociology and its responsibilities to see the COVID wood as well as its trees. It is important that macro-social phenomena and societal change are addressed, not just the ins and outs of public health interventions (important though they are). This is admittedly more difficult in neoliberal universities in which reward structures are inhibiting macro-theoretical let alone muckraking sociology. But it is vital that sociologists ask politically awkward questions and do their bit to generate wider debate before it is all a little bit too late.