I suggest there are three class-based perspectives from which to view the dilemma facing key workers in the fight against Covid-19 and three related responses to their efforts.
1 The authoritarian elite perspective. This is one which nearly all governments have adopted. This perspective considers all workers should carry out the duties assigned to them by the employer, (private or public) no matter how dangerous the duties become. Thus dying from work-related illness is considered an occupational hazard and it is unfortunate that some occupations are more hazardous than others. Upholders of this elite perspective, may applaud working people’s dedication even if they are not equipped with sufficient protective gear and tools.
They may also publicly thank them for their sacrifices, but still urge them to carry on. But authoritarian appreciation is not an expression of love for workers or humanity in general. They reason that since working people choose their occupations they should expect to take the rough with the smooth and not to complain about infringements of workplace rights. Yet in tackling Covid-19, many health and front-line workers are daily embarking upon potential suicide missions.
2 The elite social democratic perspective. According to this elite perspective, workers should have the right to request or even demand, (through proper) channels appropriate protection and suitable tools for the job. Only in exceptional cases should workers endanger their lives by carrying on working without proper protection. Workers should also be protected if they whistle-blow to expose dangerous situations. In this more democratic) view, work related deaths are not a legitimate occupational hazard and should be compensated accordingly.
The social democratic response will also applauded working people for carrying on working in hazardous conditions, particularly if they do so without proper protection and equipment. Furthermore, the holders of this view will invariably promise such situations will never happen again. A public inquiry to address the ‘mistakes’ will be promised so that in future they will not happen. In this perspective there is also no love for workers or humanity in general. There is, however, a social democratic conscience which needs to be eased by sincere concern, promises and regret for what working people have been through.
Love and humanity from workers.
It may seem strange in the context of considering the circumstances attending Covid-19 to introduce the concept of love. However, I think it is the only term which adequately explains why doctors, nurses, care workers and other key personnel do not down tools and go on strike until properly equipped. Duty, money and ambition may explain why people continue work in hazardous situations, but a daily risk of losing ones life from within the working environment is different.
When someone repeatedly tries to comfort and save the lives of dying strangers – at the risk of their own – it can only be classed as a form of love – love for another human being. I characterise the broader appearance of this symptom as ‘disaster-humanism’ but for me it is just another expression of love.
[I do not mean the mere use of the word ‘love’ but the actions which actually demonstrate it.]
I suggest that humanitarian based love is a motive different than usual for job selection. It is this which propels people into health and social care and keeps them there when pay is low, hours long and conditions dire. It is the same something extra which motivates people to save lives at sea, rescue people from burning buildings and donate bodily organs to others. Among various kinds of love; love of ones parents, children, brother, sister, partner, sweetheart, or comrade at arms; humanitarian love – is less discussed – but nonetheless active.
Moreover, it is the kind of love which is not only being dispensed in hospitals and care homes, but in ambulances, refugee camps, food banks etc., by those who daily run the gauntlet of contagion to support the helpless, hungry, the sick and the dying. Furthermore, I suggest that love in this form is part of our social evolution. It stems from an emotional response to the practical need to ‘belong’ to mutually beneficial exchanges. In order to survive emotionally, social-beings need to belong. And social groups are where we learn to give and receive love, whether that is with parents, partners, communities and by extension to humanity in general.
3 The working-class perspective. From a working-class perspective, the only real return for the unselfishly given love noted above is love returned in a similar unselfish humanist manner. This view reasons that elite prompted gestures are not enough. These do not exchange like for like. A working-class response requires a recognition that front-line staff and those who keep the health service and basic food, water, electricity, sewage and refuge services going deserve more than applause, bouquets of flowers, aircraft flyovers or illuminated buildings.
They deserve pay, conditions and pensions in line with how important they are to the well-being of our societies.
The present private profit dominated system only needed the smallest parasitic life form to penetrate it’s supply chains to trigger collapse. This prompted wealthy enterprise leaders to call for more financial and logistics support from the public sector – and they got it! If large amounts of cash can be found to prop up the richest parts of national economies then it can and should be found for those noted above and all those living hand to mouth. Only a lack of love for humanity by ‘elites’ could return working people to even more poverty when the Covid-19 lock-down is over.
An all-round love for humanity requires a new mode of production based upon egalitarian and sustainable foundations. It is also needed to replace the instability and vulnerability of the present one. A Revolutionary-Humanist perspective means arguing and campaigning for such a society. That way the example of unselfish love provided by health workers and others can be returned and also extended to those who will soon be added to the existing numbers of low-paid, homeless and hungry.
Roy Ratcliffe (May 2020)