Why I’m Not Clapping For Carers

How do you define ‘morale’?

The eyes of a woman wearing a protective face mask
Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

For the fourth week in a row, on Thursday night at 8pm, UK citizens will stand at their front doors and lean from their windows to ‘clap for carers’. A message of solidarity to those putting themselves in harm's way for the sake of the nation’s health, the ‘clap for carers’ phenomenon has arisen in a grave context. Though the government has said there is “enough kit for everyone”, NHS staff, the British Medical Association, and medical journal The Lancet, have reported that some areas of the UK have “dangerously low levels” of PPE supplies.

News outlets have reported on this uplifting routine each week; a display of collective positivity, of deep gratitude. A ‘morale boost’ by the country, for the country. It’s a beautiful sentiment.

I’ve gone to my window each time, to listen to echoes of applause rippling across the country, to witness my fellow Brits come together to support the health service workers who keep us and our loved ones alive. And I cannot bring myself to join in.

What is morale?

Definitions of morale name a positive “outlook, attitude, satisfaction, and confidence” — some add “enthusiasm” — as its foundation. I am more than satisfied with NHS and other key workers; I am astonished at what they are managing to achieve — in spite of everything.

What are our current levels of confidence in how the NHS will fare today, tomorrow, and when the Conservatives outline how they’re paying back the more than £350bn bailout? What is our outlook? What is our enthusiasm for the current situation, after a decade which saw every one of its four general elections deliver a public-sector-cutting government?

My morale is teetering. I’m glad to see the Conservatives ‘bailing out’ workers with taxpayers’ (i.e. our own) money. But the outlook as a result of this, for NHS workers — and workers in general— is bleak. And not only because of the imminent dangers of a lack of PPE, or coming recession.

But because, based on what we know of the Conservatives, they will deal with this huge, unprecedented outlay of public spending by cutting public services. Again. And based on what we know of those applauding, around 45% of them voted for this approach four times in a row.

Their applause does not boost my morale.

The Public Sector

When we are clapping for NHS staff, the tacit agreement we are making is that a phenomenal job is being done; one for which we are hugely grateful. We need to recognise this phenomenon for what it is: a workforce already decimated, then asked to risk death — and with no guarantee that their working conditions will improve. No discussion that we will come together as a country to do anything more than applaud them while they perish.

Analysis is ticking over in the background, but is drowned out by daily briefings and rolling 24-hour death toll updates. Given that the last decade’s defunding and decimation of the public sector was framed as a necessary austerity response to the 2008 recession, and the coming one is being described as far larger — “unprecedented”, the future of the NHS and all publicly funded sectors, including other key workers such as teachers and social carers, may face yet another decade of further, sweeping austerity measures.

Left Foot Forward reported right-wing think tank the Taxpayers Alliance as stating that the ‘coronavirus debt’ would have to be paid off by ensuring “spending restraint”, i.e. further cuts. Chloe Westley, former campaign manager of the Taxpayer’s Alliance is currently a special adviser to Boris Johnson.

Is this a ‘negative outlook’?

Coming up into adulthood during the 2010s can give you a particular outlook. We’ve been surrounded by a polarised landscape in which an exciting progressive politics has emerged, but a ‘business as usual’ conservative one has consistently prevailed. Sometimes it feels easier not to have hope.

In ‘Prepare For the Ultimate Gaslighting’, Julio Vincent Gambuto predicts the US’ response when ‘The New Normal’ returns to ‘normal’. We will return to a politics of denial:

It will come from brands, it will come from government, it will even come from each other, and it will come from the left and from the right. We will do anything, spend anything, believe anything, just so we can take away how horribly uncomfortable all of this feels. And on top of that, just to turn the screw that much more, will be the only effort even greater: the all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw what you saw. The air wasn’t really cleaner; those images were fake. The hospitals weren’t really a war zone; those stories were hyperbole. The numbers were not that high; the press is lying. You didn’t see people in masks standing in the rain risking their lives to vote. Not in America. You didn’t see the leader of the free world push an unproven miracle drug like a late-night infomercial salesman. That was a crisis update. You didn’t see homeless people dead on the street. You didn’t see inequality. You didn’t see indifference. You didn’t see utter failure of leadership and systems.

This is what clapping at our windows represents. It’s a performance. A way of feeling good, of telling ourselves that we are all in this together, that we are an exceptional, good people. We may have voted for cuts to nurses' pay and public health budgets, and a rollback of provision for the ‘key workers’ we are now lauding, but we’ll donate some Easter Eggs because it’s sure to make them feel better.

I understand the sentiment. In a few weeks, it might take me. I might applaud, and if I do I will mean it.

I may be more inclined to participate if it was ‘scream for the service’, ‘kick-off for keyworkers’. I can certainly get behind ‘campaign for carers’. I’ll applaud the solidarity of actual policy change when the British public votes in a government on the platform of a budget that reinstates, or surpasses, the minimum funding needed to support fully-functioning public services.

It might be that new political movements and moments arise from this crisis. The semblance of UBI in the US and public investment in the UK that we’re seeing may set a precedent that swings public trust back towards a greater social safety net. A politics that cherishes the life, and the reality, of the working class. But we may need to fight harder than we did in the 2010s.

The NHS needs to be properly funded and properly staffed. NHS staff need to be well paid and, at the very minimum, equipment to keep them alive. Any smaller gestures serve only to make us feel better about the fact this isn’t happening.

If 2020 is to become the sequel to 2010, it’s going to take more than clapping and Easter Eggs to boost my morale.

Politics and culture writer. Editor of Chompsky. Media reform advocate. UK/US.

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