Any illusions that we were ever protected from the rank contempt of our rulers by the logic of democracy – because the government embodies the will of the people who elected it – are now gone. Their only concern was for the will that brought them to power. And now, many more protections that we imagined were still in place – from unemployment, from homelessness, from risks to our health in the workplace – will crumble into dust, as our society splits even more decisively into a small group of winners and a large mass of losers.
Divisions are becoming more exposed each week. Already the labour force has become divided between those who can work from home and those who must go out and be on the frontline of the government’s experiment in easing the lockdown; between those who can continue to cocoon and those who cannot afford to, because they are paid for piecework for each physical task – a clean house, a day on a construction site, a hot meal delivered to your door.
There are workers who have formal contracts that treat their labour as a service performed by a human being who has the right to notice, severance pay and protection from abuse. And there are those who have no protection from the whims of their bosses to dictate their treatment and fate. As the predicted recession bites and unemployment rises, the power that employers have over zero-hours workers grateful to have any income will produce more and more abuses, especially for undocumented workers.
The pandemic quickly thrived in society’s cracks, claiming lives and livelihoods according to race, access to healthcare, work risk profile and economic status. Next it will open up even larger fissures. Considering the collective trauma that we have gone through, we can be allowed a moment of relief as a “return to normal” begins to take shape. But it may be brief: now the task will be to scrutinise the unforgiving new landscape of sharpened inequalities, and – instead of turning on each other – do whatever we can to soften them.