You Should Politicize the Coronavirus

The pandemic raises unavoidable and legitimate political questions. We should be suspicious of any attempt to dismiss them.

Celina Pereira

Now isn’t the time to talk about inequality. That was the message the British government sent out when it suspended companies’ annual legal duty to publish their gender pay gap—a week before the deadline. Soon after, the political adviser turned journalist Sonia Sodha received fierce backlash for noting that a disproportionate number of the British doctors dying from the coronavirus come from ethnic minorities. This isn’t the time to talk about race, she was told, because brave health-care workers of every ethnicity are losing their lives.

The collection of data on race and gender is an easy target for those who style themselves as champions of small government or cutting red tape and easing “burdensome” regulation. But without it, policy makers are unable to see the full impact of their decisions—and the media and the opposition are less equipped to hold them to account.

That matters because this will be the second successive decade in which the aftermath of a major economic shock shapes government decisions. In Britain, the 2010s were the austerity decade, as the fallout from the financial crisis led to successive Conservative governments cutting public spending, freezing benefits, and blaming any unpopular decisions on the fact that there was “no money left.” The next 10 years—the coronavirus decade—will be even more shaped by the global pandemic than the past were by the financial crash. After weeks of lockdown, the global economy is in free fall. Oil prices have plummeted. Air travel has slowed to a trickle. Seven out of 10 British companies have applied to have the government pay at least some of their employees’ wages. Britain’s bailout package alone runs to £330 billion, or $410 billion.

Post-crash austerity fell harder on women, who tended to pick up the slack from cuts to children’s services and care for the elderly, damaging their earning potential as a result. In Britain today, women make up the majority of low earners, according to the Women’s Budget Group, an independent think tank. Nearly half of single parents, nine out of 10 of whom are mothers, are living in poverty.

In light of this, measuring the gender pay gap would seem to give us an important insight into economic recovery after the pandemic. But not to commentators such as Daniel Hannan. Writing in The Telegraph, the Conservative politician called pre-pandemic concerns about social mobility “petty,” and added: “When a million more people are [unemployed], does anyone think it will be a priority to publish gender pay gaps?” In the same newspaper a few weeks earlier, the journalist Tom Welsh claimed that “the war on coronavirus has, in part, made the war on plastic redundant.” Both reflect an emerging strain of thought that suggests the economic deprivations heading toward Western societies mean that economic growth must be prioritized over every other concern. Hannan’s prescription was an end to environmentalism and other “regulations that inhibit growth … Even the minimum wage will be hard to justify if millions of people are looking for work.”

All this is framed as ending the “petty” obsessions of the culture wars. But it isn’t a cease-fire; it is a demand that the left concede defeat. The current crisis might instead prompt us to ask whether companies domiciled in tax havens have any right to come crying to governments for a handout. (Denmark says no.) We might question how far ordinary taxpayers should be expected to guarantee Richard Branson’s billions. We might suggest that, actually, for women who are underpaid, eradicating the gender pay gap is rather important.

The “business first” argument suggests that the right is worried by what comes next. Conservatism with a small c is a powerful force in politics, as voters consider the possibility of losing whatever they currently have against the possibility of positive change. When a Conservative government effectively nationalizes parts of the rail network, provides free food rations to thousands of people, and suspends competition rules so supermarkets can coordinate to “feed the nation”—as has happened in Britain—the normal rules have clearly been broken. The argument that “it simply can’t be done” will now carry less weight. The crisis could give momentum to populist criticisms of capitalism that portray it as a rigged game, benefiting elites at the expense of ordinary citizens. The pandemic is not a “great leveler,” when millionaires hole up during lockdown in yachts or country houses, and digital companies—many of which pay low effective tax rates in the countries where they operate—prosper while brick-and-mortar businesses go bust.

Those currents had already existed as a result of the financial crash: Remember the viral clip of the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s suggestion at Davos that companies forgo philanthropy and just pay their taxes? Billionaires looking for bailouts this time around are facing strong pushback. (The British government has so far refused to discuss a crisis loan for Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, prompting him to publish a letter saying he and his wife “did not leave Britain for tax reasons but for our love of the beautiful British Virgin Islands.”)

The funding of public services will also become a red-hot political question. Over the past few weeks in Britain, charitable endeavors—such as a 100-year-old veteran walking laps of his garden to raise money for the National Health Service—have been accompanied by a persistent murmur of disquiet: Why is the health service so badly funded that it needs charity donations? When the health minister says he values nursing-home workers so much that he wants to honor them with a lapel badge, why are they paid less than supermarket cashiers?

These are unavoidable and legitimate political questions; we should be suspicious of any attempt to dismiss them. After all, Hannan is a vocal supporter of leaving the European Union, and you will look in vain for serious economists who believe that will have a positive short-term impact on Britain’s economy. When confronted with the suggestion that the business community hated Brexit, which he backed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported to have replied: “Fuck business.” Yet neither of them is suggesting that their pet political project must be canceled for economic reasons. Instead, the government insists that Britain will press ahead with ending the Brexit transition period on December 31.

Society either cares about equality and the environment all the time or none of the time. These are not fripperies. The recent spike in domestic-violence reports is real. Living in a polluted city does appear to worsen the coronavirus’s toll. Children in deprived areas have had far less homeschooling during the lockdown than their wealthier peers, according to the British think tank the Sutton Trust, because many of them do not have computer equipment and internet access. These are all political tragedies. They require a political response.

So although Britain could respond to the crisis by scrapping the minimum wage and letting private companies pollute our air and water, that’s not a neutral, pragmatic decision. It is deeply ideological. (The one leader who has found time to focus on the equality agenda? Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who is trying to remove the legal right to change gender. Businesses have not likely been clamoring for this to happen.)

Society flourishes when businesses succeed, but it also does so when as many people as possible attain their full potential. The coronavirus decade should not repeat the mistakes of the past. If your principles can be abandoned under pressure, you never really had them at all.