Amidst a pandemic, people first or market forces?

By Savi Hensman
March 20, 2020

The spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the value of human solidarity and society-wide and global action, rather than relying on ‘market forces’. Though outbreaks of previously unknown dangerous diseases are inevitable, bringing fear, suffering and grief, how communities and public authorities respond is crucial.

In recent decades, there has been a trend towards cutting back on public services and regulation and trusting that businesses’ attempts to increase profit will benefit humankind. Workers’ rights and social security have been slashed, leaving many at risk of destitution and making it harder for them to observe precautions which could protect them and others.

What remains of the statutory and voluntary sectors (other than the police and armed forces) is often expected to run in a ‘businesslike’ way that is ‘efficient’ through reducing spare capacity and wringing the most out of employees. The current crisis has shown the hazards of such an approach, including – in the UK and elsewhere – the impact of chronic underfunding on the NHS and social care.

It is noteworthy too, that big companies which have done well out of massive tax cuts and loopholes are nevertheless reliant on public bodies stepping in during emergencies.

The drawbacks in certain trends, such as growing levels of university teaching online, have also been exposed. Such an approach may be needed at present to avoid the spread of infection. But the companionship among those gathering in the same place at the same time is missed, as well as lecturers’ opportunity to pick up on whether a student is struggling to cope or indeed excited by the subject.

The hollowness of a conveyor belt-type approach to staff and ‘customers’ has become apparent. In general, in what may sometimes feel like an increasingly impersonal world, a spotlight has shone on people’s need for one another. Much can be achieved through virtual reality but humans are also embodied beings, with particular surroundings, needs, strengths and relationships.

The spread of coronavirus is a reminder too of the limits of narrow nationalism and hostility to ‘the other’, in a deeply interconnected world. Where some are undervalued and unsafe, no-one is truly safe and secure.

Faith communities, along with other networks, groups and people of goodwill, have a key part to play, even if unable to gather in the usual ways. They can be sources of fellowship and support, push for constructive measures, resist attempts to exploit the crisis to harm minorities and the poor, and offer channels for spirituality in a broad sense, including the sense of interconnection with other people, living things and the earth.

Sometimes, drawing on ancient traditions as well as current events, words may be shared which help in expressing fear, lament for loss, thankfulness or hope. It may also be important to keep reminding people of the value of compassion and justice.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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