The Coronavirus Manifesto

by Gene Kerrigan, Sunday Independent, 22nd March 2020.


IMAGINE the chaos if the nurses went on strike right now, for higher pay and better conditions. They won’t do it, of course, but if they put their personal interests above all else, now would be the time to pull the plug.

Instantly, their every demand would be met.

Of course, in human and social terms, it would be disastrous — not to mention selfish and immoral.

Which is why the nurses won’t do it.

In fact, in the face of the Covid-19 assault on our lives, the opposite is happening. Retired medics are lining up by the tens of thousands to re-register and put their skills to use in the common good.

They and the existing workforce step without hesitation into the frontline.

And our gratitude is huge and transparently genuine.

This is the politics of community.

So, tell me this: why, in normal times, do we force medics and other essential workers to fight for every extra cent in pay, and every piddling improvement in conditions?

A range of other undervalued workers have kept us afloat in recent days. The shop workers and transport workers, the pharmacists, the cleaners, the armies of those who produce and distribute.

We’ll never know, for instance, how many tragedies were avoided by the cleaners whose work ensured we could enter spaces and touch objects they made safe for us. Many of them work for wages that are as low as the employers can push them, while still finding people who need the work.

At the same time, through exorbitant salaries, scandalous bonuses, bloated dividends, extortionate profits, tricky little share deals and sly manipulation of the tax laws, a thin layer of rich people have been sucking vast fortunes from the same system that underpays essential workers.

This is the politics of greed.

That’s what the tension in our society has been about. It’s what strikes and threats of strikes are about. It’s what the water tax protests were about. It’s what the housing crisis and the health crisis have been about.

The politics of community versus the politics of greed.

Look at housing. The word went out across the financial world — unprecedented profits to be made out of the Irish property market.

And the vultures, foreign and domestic, descended.

Working people were subjected to extortionate rents; every spare cent from two-salary households had to go to barely keeping up mortgage payments.

Homelessness was pushed up, children live perilously in B&Bs. People die sleeping on frozen streets.

The profiteers were encouraged and permitted to put their personal interests above all else.

In short, our political leaders endorsed policies that were disastrous, not to mention selfish and immoral.

And, for the most part, our media, cultural and intellectual leaders were cool with that, as their own properties rose in value.

Appeals to government to do something effective about the consequences of greed were blandly rejected.

Oh, no, can’t do that, it would be “unconstitutional”.

Oh, no, can’t interfere with the market, it would produce sub-optimal economic outcomes.

Ah, no, we’d love more social housing, but we don’t want to make “the mistakes of yesterday” — they said with straight faces.

And only a fool would hold back from extorting as much as possible, regardless of consequences.

Really? Is that what we’d tell the nurses right now?

Take, take, take, take

— to hell with the greater good, screw the politics of community, grab what you can, regardless of consequences?

No, that’s not what we want the nurses to do now — when they have massive bargaining power — and that’s not what’s on their minds.

In the battle between the politics of community and the politics of greed, it was the greedy who had the support of the political parties, the cultural celebrities and the intellectual charmers.

In the media, the greedy openly flaunted the proceeds of their avarice. Magazines glorified them. Radio programmes interviewed them in a servile manner. The media treated every vacuous comment from airhead CEOs and business “analysts” as though it was wisdom flowing from the lips of Aristotle.

TV shows promoted the values of the greedy and drooled over their lifestyles.

Universities and feepaying schools inculcated those values in the young.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith summed it up, long ago: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

Covid-19 didn’t come out of the blue. It’s the latest in a line of pandemics that killed a lot of people and were then beaten back.

This seems like a tough one, but we’ve known for a long time that at any moment we might be in this crisis.

Yet, we ran down our public health system. Not for years, for decades.

The rich people’s tax frauds of the 1980s and 1990s were effectively subsidised by austerity and cutting thousands of public hospital beds.

We had nine beds for every 1,000 of population in 1980. Ten years later, they’d cut that to six. Now, it’s about 2.6 beds per thousand. The OECD average is 4.8.

Leo Varadkar, asked about this by the Sunday Independent in 2016, said that if you take pressure off the medics things “slow down”. It seems fewer beds and more pressure makes them work harder.

In recent years, medics made no secret they were under severe stress, patients were suffering, the public health system was absurdly under-funded.

Hospitals were given inadequate budgets, and when they failed to keep to them, they were penalised. This was the greedy swaggering.

Oh, yes, said the politicians, we’d love to pay the nurses more — sure, aren’t they angels of mercy, one and all?

And we’d love it if overworked doctors didn’t fall asleep in their cars.

Of course, we’d be thrilled to supply all the equipment the medics need — so embarrassing when they have to use GoFundMe to buy a life-saving machine.

But, hey, the warriors of the stock market need another tax break; the Google executive won’t grace our shores unless we pay his kids’ private school fees; the bank executives are threatening to quit if we don’t raise the pay cap from a mere half-a-million a year.

And, look — if the rich weren’t vastly overpaid, sure, they wouldn’t be able to afford their philanthropy, right?

Actually, some of us aren’t too impressed by the rich “giving something back”. We’d much prefer if the greedy just stopped taking, taking, taking, taking, taking.

When this dreadful time has ended, and we’ve buried all the dead and shed all the tears, will we just pick up where we left off ?

The politics of greed produced the housing crisis and left us with a public health service ill-prepared for this dreadful virus.

It is the politics of community — in the shape of medics going beyond the call of duty, and other essential workers holding things together — that we look to in this crisis.

The mess the rich made of this country resulted from political choices.

When we’ve buried the dead, we will again have choices to make.

And, fundamentally, we’ll be choosing between the politics of greed and the politics of community.

If the politics of community — of equality and service and mutual respect — can save us in the bad times, we need it to make life better in normal times.

‘Covid-19 didn’t come out of the blue — we knew that at any moment we might be in this crisis’

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