//Forget Politics. This is a Humanitarian Issue.

Forget Politics. This is a Humanitarian Issue.

By Jennifer Parson | jlparson@hotmail.com

The last few weeks have been a confusing time for people around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic crept across the globe, shutting down communities in its progression.  The unprecedented nature of the crisis has been a challenge to governments at the national and local levels, and despite everyone facing the same problem, each country has taken a different approach to fight back.

I was born in California and raised in King’s County but have been living in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh for eight years. Recently, the UK has been deeply divided over issues like Scottish independence and leaving the European Union (i.e., Brexit). It’s led to an increasing feeling that the country is tilting towards the more partisan politics seen in America. However, the British government’s response to the pandemic has been widely accepted by the public, even as stricter measures have come into force. In addition, British citizens have generally recognised the severity of the issue and are adhering to government guidance. This means staying at home, only leaving to buy essentials like food and medicine, going to work, or heading outdoors for exercise. 

One of the main reasons for this success is because the government has shifted the message away from politics and focused on the effect the virus will have on the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS is our publicly funded healthcare system, which enables all residents to access healthcare at no personal cost. The official government slogan during the pandemic is “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.” The message is clear, while the threat of death may be statistically low for most healthy people, inundating the NHS with low-risk cases increases the burden on staff and takes up resources vital to save lives.  In a way, it’s like a time of war – doctors and nurses are the country’s soldiers on the frontline and citizens are asked to support them by staying home, staying healthy, and not increasing NHS’ workload while they fight the virus.

Polls consistently show strong backing for the NHS. Furthermore, all political parties openly support it as an institution. This is reflected by the nearly 20,000 retired healthcare workers who have answered the call to return to work during the crisis. In response, the British public has shown their love. Grocery stores keep the first hour of opening for NHS workers only. The public can donate money on Deliveroo to pay for meals for NHS staff doing long hospital shifts. At 8 pm on April 2nd, we took part in “Clap for Carers,” where citizens clapped, shouted, and banged pots and pans from their homes to salute the NHS staff and other key workers. And when UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock asked the public for 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS deliver vital food and medicine to vulnerable people stuck at home, over 750,000 people signed up within days.

The fact that the US does not have nationalised healthcare is a serious concern, especially during these times. Millions of Americans do not have health insurance. Of those that do, tens of millions are still underinsured, meaning a stint in the ICU could have a devastating impact on their finances. Likewise, many people, and particularly undocumented immigrants, may feel afraid to access healthcare services should they become ill with the virus due to costs or risk of deportation. Issues with paid sick leave and certification of illness exacerbate the problem. In the UK, employees are legally entitled to two weeks paid sick leave should they need it, and they can “self-certify” if they are off work for up to seven days. Self-certifying means they are more likely to use sick leave should they start feeling ill rather than spreading the virus at work. By self-certifying, they do not need to leave their homes or interact with healthcare staff as they do not require a doctor’s note. This will prove a huge advantage over the US during the outbreak because healthcare professionals will have reduced contact with the broader public. Those who have the virus but do not require acute care.  Additionally, the UK government is now paying 80% of monthly salaries to people unable to work due to COVID-19, up to a maximum of £2,500 (the average monthly salary in the UK).

This virus is also a great equalizer – both the Prime Minister and Prince Charles, second in line to the British throne, have recently tested positive. Money can help shield you from the virus to some extent, ordering essentials online or taking leave from work makes staying home much more available. While age is also a factor in your chances of having a severe reaction, there is always a possibility you may end up on a ventilator or worse, no matter who you are. 

While the US has made great efforts to expand unemployment support, invigorate the economy through stimulus checks, and push for research into a vaccine, there are still systemic issues that make supporting people through the outbreak more difficult. My hope is that the pandemic opens peoples’ eyes to the devastating consequences of inequality and gives us time to reflect on how we can enact positive change to correct this. Things like universal healthcare and better employment laws to protect workers’ rights are essential to keeping the US healthy and functional during such trying times and beyond.