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Pause the System coronavirus protest 5
Courtesy Pause the System

Why I stood in a hazmat suit outside Downing Street for my job

For those of us in the service industry, the UK government’s insistence on ‘business as usual’ is forcing us to put lives at risk as well as destroying our livelihoods

Over the past week, the UK government has insisted on continuing with “business as usual” during the coronavirus pandemic. We are being told to partake in “voluntary lockdown” – something I feared we would be forced into. For myself and others who work in the service industry, this is something that leaves us feeling conflicted and fearful, and something that’s actually impossible to do.

I came to this country from Australia and instantly fell in love with London and the people I met here. I now have one year left on my visa and have been working two jobs in order to save for new visas and potentially travel. I work zero-hour contracts in hospitality, which now means one of three things: I don’t work and don’t get paid as the business faces very difficult financial issues; I file for bankruptcy; or I go to work and put myself and those more vulnerable than me at risk.

I know I’m better off than others because I’m young and reasonably healthy, but I can make others sick and that breaks my heart. Myself and other precarious workers – including those in hospitality, sex workers, and people who are self-employed – are being forced to make a horrible decision, and are afraid of what the future holds for us in the upcoming months.

No one could have predicted the situation we now all face, nor is there one person we can blame. However, the actions taken by those who hold power have completely lacked compassion.

We watched as most other European countries took strict and immediate measures to protect people against coronavirus, and to try and prevent it from spreading to developing countries, where the pandemic may be worse. The UK inaction and refusal to follow its neighbours against the advice of the World Health Organisation has led to the virus spreading at such a rate that we could soon see the same tragic scenes we’re witnessing in Italy. At the time of writing, Italy has over 35,000 confirmed cases, almost 3,000 deaths, and has been on total lockdown since the beginning of March.

Like many other people in the UK at this moment in time, the fear and anxiety of losing everything I’ve worked for – my career and life aspirations, as well as the actual roof over my head – is all-consuming. I wanted to let the government know that ordinary people like me need support. So, early on Monday (March 16) morning, I put on a hazmat suit and a face mask and joined protesters from Pause the System outside Downing Street. Sitting in front of the wrought iron gates, I felt empowered and like a weight had been lifted.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that our systems of government are broken. This crisis has exposed the deep cracks in the state’s ability to help the most vulnerable”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that in the UK, my own native Australia, and across the world, our systems of government are broken. This crisis has exposed the deep cracks in the state’s ability to help the most vulnerable: workers, unemployed people, the elderly, migrants, and people with disabilities or health conditions. How are those lucky enough to get statutory sick pay supposed to live on £94.25 per week? Many of us are starting to realise that our benefits system benefits no one; it’s terrifying that Boris Johnson’s daily briefings have talked primarily about loans and grants for businesses. Again, it's the economy over people.

I sat outside Downing Street on Monday demanding that the government implement a closure of all non-essential businesses and schools, as well as carrying out widespread testing to contain coronavirus. Since then, further measures have been taken and schools are closing – and thankfully so, as experts have now said that the government’s original plan would have resulted in hundreds of thousands more deaths.

Still, this is far from enough. This crisis has exposed the need for Pause the System’s demands more than ever – we need a universal basic income as well as a pause on mortgages, debts, rents, and whatever support is necessary to help the most vulnerable. The era of neo-liberal and callous capitalism must come to an end.

The world at the moment feels like chaos. There is someone who is dear to me who, I only recently found out, has no citizenship nor visa to be here. This person, despite working as a part of this economy, does not have the right to healthcare or any kind of support. I fear for them, and I fear for those whose stories I have not heard. I fear for myself, and I fear for my friends and family, both here and thousands of miles away in Australia.

Right now, most of us are in the same situation; very few will have the means to get through this without government support. Without action, we will certainly face future pandemics caused by the climate emergency, factory farming, and the trade of animals. Let’s come together to change a system which benefits only a very small percentage of the population.

When the time is right, we can build a better world, a better system that allows all of us – humans, animals, and the planet –  to live without the threat of ruin constantly hanging over our heads.