Brexit has dwindled into a very much reduced priority since the arrival of coronavirus. As a granddaughter of Indian immigrants, I have found the events of Brexit slightly more difficult to disregard. When I awoke to the referendum result on 24th June 2016, I awoke to something which surpassed leaving the EU. I awoke to unsettling confirmation that beyond the confines of my utopian University bubble, I am – to a very petrifying proportion of the nation – an outsider. The ‘we want our country back’, the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ – the entire racist rhetoric embodied by Brexit – threatened the place I’ve always called home. So, whilst politicians have pressed the pause button on Brexit, it has remained something I can’t help but contemplate.
I want to explore whether COVID-19 can teach us anything about the central aspects of the Brexit debate. Opinion polls found that ‘sovereignty’ and ‘immigration’ were the two main reasons people voted Leave, and that ‘the economy’ was the main reason people voted Remain. Can COVID-19 offer any advancements on these three issues?
There is a strong argument that COVID-19 has demonstrated how unity and collaboration are far more successful than a sovereign nation. The World Health Organisation embodies an agency of unity. Despite the EU and the WHO having different objectives, the two organisations can be likened in their essence of international cooperation and teamwork between nations. The WHO has undoubtedly been vital in minimising the detrimental impacts of Covid-19. Nations who have secluded themselves from international efforts by ignoring WHO advice have succumbed far worse than nations who have cooperated. The success of WHO’s global effort is testament that consensus and unity are far more valuable to the world than nation-first politics.
Coronavirus doesn’t provide compelling evidence that “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. The UK are facing the highest death toll of any European country and the second highest death toll in the world as a result of the UK government’s coronavirus response. Despite making up less than 1% of the world population, the UK are accounting for a terrifying 11% of worldwide deaths. The UK government sleepwalked into implementing a lockdown, doing so when cases had already increased exponentially. They have failed to conduct widespread testing or contact tracing. After missing three separate occasions to be part of an EU bulk-buy scheme, the NHS have suffered a colossal PPE shortage. This has directly contributed to the death of healthcare workers. There have been calls for an enquiry into the government’s handling of coronavirus. Should we really give ‘back control’ to a government whose actions (and inactions) have demonstrated incompetency?
Brexit was directly linked to a spike in race-related hate crimes. A campaign which blamed migrants for burdening public services and ruining ‘British culture’ has been proved wrong during coronavirus. The pandemic has exposed how society is sustained by migrants, not drained by them. Priti Patel’s post-Brexit immigration bill aimed to reduce ‘low-skill’ migration into the UK via salary thresholds. Coronavirus has demonstrated how arbitrary the term ‘low skilled’ is. ‘Low-skilled’ workers have turned out to be essential workers. Cleaners, bus drivers, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, hospital porters – these jobs have proven crucial to maintain a safe and functioning society during lockdown. A huge proportion of these workers are migrants. Occupations such as food production, agriculture, and transport depend profoundly on migrant workers. Migrants make up 17% of the employed UK population. 27% of the ‘low-skilled’ sector are EU migrants. Workers deemed worthless and disposable during Brexit have transpired to be essential.
Never before has the NHS felt so treasured, yet, what many of us underestimate is how the success of the NHS stems from a history of migration. As early as 1949, nurses were recruited from British empire nations such as the Caribbean, Malaysia and Mauritius. Doctors came in huge numbers from Pakistan and India during the 60s in response to a government appeal for medics. Today, 13.1% of NHS staff are non-British. EU nationals make up 9.5% of doctors and 6.4% of nurses. An international workforce is integral to the NHS. The same health secretary who in November declared the NHS was a “national health service, not an international health service”, is now paying his respects to BAME doctors who died of COVID-19 as “people who came to this country to make a difference”.
Coronavirus has forced Britain into an unprecedented recession. With shops shuttered and factories closed, there’s been a record plunge in economic activity. The UK economy has shrunk by 2% and the Bank of England have forecast a decline of 25% in GDP. Under plans to restart the economy – despite Britain still seeing thousands of new cases a day – Boris Johnson declared thousands should return to work.
If coronavirus has done anything, it has exposed how economic hardship and austerity affect the most deprived in society. People in poor areas of the UK are dying of coronavirus at double the rate compared to affluent areas. Working-class men in low paid jobs are more likely to die of COVID-19. The UN’s poverty expert, Philip Alston, attacked the UK government’s coronavirus response which claimed to ‘abandon austerity’ as utterly hypocritical, stating the damage of austerity cannot be undone. Incessant cuts to benefits and services has seen life expectancy for women in the poorest areas of England fall. People in the most wealthy areas of the UK live 20 years longer than people in the most deprived areas. Socioeconomic status is directly linked to hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The fact that the most deprived are dying of coronavirus at a greater rate than others is no surprise to experts who have studied the relationship between wealth and health for decades.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is expected to cost the UK economy £70 billion over the next decade, and is projected to cut the size of the UK economy by 4%. Study after study demonstrate how the UK will be economically worse-off outside the EU. It’s illogical and inconsistent for a government to justify measures to prevent the UK economy deteriorating during lockdown, as well as admit to the all too evident socioeconomic health disparities, yet simultaneously succumb to the inevitable economic damage of Brexit.
COVID-19 is providing proof that continuing to ‘get Brexit done’ will be dangerous and self-destructive. The pandemic has revealed the necessary role of migrants. It has made evident that nation-first politics, which rejects unity and collaboration, is not only foolish but harmful. It has confirmed that economic hardship affects the most vulnerable in society in ways unfathomable.
European integration and unity undoubtedly reinforced Britain’s position on the world stage. It was the allegiance of European powers and the loyalty of colonies who fought with us that facilitated Britain winning the Wars. The very foundations of ‘Great Britain’ were built on the backs of cultures that Brexit endeavoured to reject. If we’re incapable of learning from history, hopefully, we are capable of learning from the present. COVID-19 is offering warning signs right in front of our eyes; let’s not ignore them.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.