A letter from Calais: the meaning of privilege in a pandemic

Words by Maddy Bloxham

I’m sad and mad. All the time. My emotions have completely engulfed me and I’m carrying their weight, every day. They’re smothering my every thought and action as I witness what a pandemic really means for migrants and minorities.

Coronavirus has affected people in a magnitude of ways: loss, upheaval, uncertainty, hardship and struggle. The pill I find hardest to swallow is naivety. Many of my friends and the people I see within my online sphere are publicly supporting things I expected them to oppose. Instagramming a government-endorsed clap for key workers, raising money for a supposedly government-funded public service and supporting Boris Johnson throughout his personal experience of the virus.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe the keyworkers have proved themselves to be the backbone of our nation, but this isn’t a role they should have had to take on. During a time of unemployment, working classes are being pressured to fund a public service they have paid for through taxes for the entirety of their adult lives. The will and want to help others is something to be proud of, but the acceptance and allowance of this government’s response is certainly something to be ashamed of. We’re playing into the government’s plan, shrewdly masked in the illusion of community spirit, likened to a ‘post blitz’ era through a worryingly successful attempt at propaganda. Remember David Cameron’s ‘big society’ bullshit? Well, we’re living it.

Johnson worked to dismantle the public service that people like you and I rely on, not expecting that he would ever need its support too. But he did, and he received it. He spoke of how he had constant care from nurses by his side throughout day and night and that he was never left alone. We then felt sorry for him, and as if he was somewhat in touch with the nation and with the lives of normal people. The fact that he received constant care — care from the service he has neglected and mocked — is in itself an issue. His privilege Is overwhelming and blinds his vision of a better future for those truly in need. His portrayal of vulnerability worked and made us forget his racist rhetoric spilling over newspaper pages, and the threat he poses to the functionality of society’s most vital organ, our NHS. Nurses and doctors are so far stretched that there are barely enough people on shift to cover a ward, let alone individual beds. But this man, the man who stood by as nurses were denied a pay rise, used his privilege to buy himself more time and more support than many who have sadly lost to this virus.

I can’t listen to the rhetoric that the virus is going to change things for the better and that the government will step up and help those who have always needed it. We’ve seen a worrying lack of funding going toward PPE for those on the frontline during this pandemic, why do we think that money will be distributed more fairly after the crisis dies down?

Do we really expect that work regulations and benefits will change, when people are being forced to work now in unsafe circumstances and conditions in warehouses to avoid being fired? Do we think Tesco employees will be regarded as key workers once this is all over? Do we think workers in care homes will ever be payed a real, fair, wage? Do we think the middle class will be told to go back to work even when it is clearly unsafe? Do we think putting homeless people in accommodation, if they are ‘clean’, without access to support and welfare throughout this time is helpful? Do we expect that once the pandemic is over, they won’t be left alone and returned to the streets again? And, do we really think that refugees and displaced people will be viewed as human by the government after this, let alone as worthy of help and asylum?

In Calais, there are still communities of displaced people here who are trying to get to the UK. It’s safe to say that Coronavirus isn’t showing signs of hope for them. In fact, at the moment there are little if not any signs of hope. Sufficient provisions of food by the state are not being met, let alone shelter and accommodation. Does being harassed by the police daily, being evicted every forty-eight hours from the sites people have sadly come to know as home and being met with tear gas and violence seem like protection from a virus to you? It certainly doesn’t to me. Even, in the midst of a global pandemic, the attitude towards refugees remains the same. Perhaps there should be an asterisk at the bottom of the proudly stated ‘no bus fees’ banners on the side of the buses: *doesn’t apply to migrants. The one-size-fits-all policy unsurprisingly isn’t working. The state doesn’t see migrants as deserving of social distancing, of protection or access to basic human rights. Instead the state sees them as deserving of further pain and suffering. If not in the middle of a global pandemic, when will the people here receive any relief?

I’m sad and I’m mad that the virus has forced many organizations and charities to cease functioning in Calais. I’m sad and mad that there is even a need for organizations in Calais. I’m sad and mad that people are forced to be here because they aren’t allowed into the UK. I understand that in the middle of a pandemic is not the right time to allow movement over borders, but I also understand the government will never see any ‘right time’ for this. Everyone is human and deserves to be treated as such. Do you think it’s unjust that a child has grown up in ‘the jungle’ with no home, no welfare, no dignity and no rights? 2016 has passed and the image of the ‘Calais jungle’ we saw on the news has faded away with it. If the news won’t continue to share the story, then I will. People are still here in northern France, a stone’s throw away from our coastline. They are here and they need your help. Please don’t forget about these people. Your own worries during the pandemic are valid and you should look after yourself first and foremost. But please, don’t forget about your privilege if you have it. My last plea is for you to use your voice for the people that don’t have one.

To donate to Calais Food Collective, an organisation working tirelessly throughout both the refugee crisis and the global health crisis to protect and provide for those in need, please click here.

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