Coronavirus: why illness and death are not ‘above politics’.

Michael Gove has been widely criticised for having his daughter tested for Covid-19 when it seemed she did not qualify according to the criteria that are being applied to the rest of us. The anger was understandable: the capacity is not there to carry out nearly enough tests. When there is not enough to go round, there will be haves and have-nots. When it comes to testing, some of us must be prioritised while others – including front-line NHS staff and their families – must go without. Michael Gove is a member of the Government that is widely held to be to blame for the lack of capacity for testing – mostly down to shortage of testing kits. The fact that he managed to fix things so that his own family obtained an advantage over others more deserving certainly leaves a bitter taste – but can we really blame him for doing what we ourselves might have done had we been in the same position. Criticism of those who are able to swing the system in their favour while it goes against others is pointless. It is the system itself that needs questioning – and that is political.

Every day the number of those who have died over the past twenty-four hours is reported. The figures are pored over and endlessly analysed: How accurate are they? Would those who have died, died anyway? Who is most likely to die? Have the numbers peaked and is this the beginning of the end? Comparisons are made with other nations’ responses and there is increasing criticism of our own Government’s response – including the early denial phase that meant that now we do not have the resources – including testing kits – to do what is needed. From the beginning, the debate is peppered with condemnation of those who it is believed are seeking to ‘politicise’ the crisis ‘Political point scoring’ is seen as the height of bad manners – with so many ill and dying or in danger of death, including recently, the Prime Minister himself, surely what we are going through right now is ‘above politics’. It is not.

The death statistics have been broken down. It seems that children are not so likely to die; women are less likely to succumb; young people will probably have milder symptoms while those from ethnic minority communities are disproportionately represented in the death statistics. I could go on … and on, and no doubt the statistics are useful. I am sure they are telling us many things we need to know in order that we can better withstand the storm. However, there is one way in which it seems the figures have not yet been broken down. We do not know how those who are infected fare relative to their socio-economic – class – status.

This is not the first pandemic humanity has faced. The United Kingdom has been ravaged by bubonic plague, cholera and smallpox, as well as influenza. As well as this, before the invention of vaccination millions died ‘before their time’ from complications arising from childhood illnesses like measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever etc, not to mention TB.

The 1918-19 flu epidemic killed millions – 12 million in India and China alone. More soldiers died from the flu than were killed in the war. In Britain the epidemic, known as Spanish flu and nicknamed ‘the Spanish Lady’, claimed around 200,000 lives – that is, 0.5%, or one in two hundred of the pre-war population. The disease killed rich and poor alike. Sir Mark was the 6th Baronet Sykes, a member of the nobility who served as a diplomat during World War One. He contracted the disease in Paris in 1919 and died there aged just 40. His body was brought home to Sledmere, Yorkshire, in a lead-lined coffin and his lavish funeral was widely reported.

My Grandfather’s best pal, Fred Crawford, died of the flu in July 1918. On his death a gratuity of £2 – 13s 6d was paid to his father Alfred, a railway worker. My Grandfather inherited Fred’s cigarette case (together with a half-smoked woodbine). That was it. Fred never made it to France. He died in one of the training camps at Cannock Chase where he fell ill just a week after joining up at Lincoln. He was 18. His mother’s only comfort was that she was able to bury him at home – had he died abroad, that would not have been possible.

So, the epidemic took the lives of a son of a baronet and a son of a railway worker. The virus that caused the Spanish flu did not discriminate between them. Nevertheless, the fact remains, and the statistics bear it out, that the poorer you were, the far more likely you were to succumb. If you were healthy and well-nourished, could afford to rest up in a warm bed for as long as you needed to, and could afford the medicines that were available, then your chances of survival were fairly good. Sir Mark and my Grandfather’s mate Fred were both among the millions who died, but that does not alter the fact that, by virtue of his class, Sir Mark started out with much better odds than Fred.

The Spanish flu swept through humanity in two waves and then it went away, never to return. No doubt there will come a time when coronavirus will have done the same. Then we will be able to look at the statistics. I expect that we will find that we still live in a system in which the odds of surviving are much better for some than for others. It may be that women fare better than men – though men die too; that children are not so severely affected as adults – but children do die while old people survive; that those from ethnic minorities fare worse – but not always. We will also find that, man or woman, young or old, native or otherwise, social class still cuts across it all. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to die. That is political and that is why, while perhaps we might refrain from ‘political point scoring’, we should definitely not leave politics out of it.




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