In early September, when the government began to scapegoat young people in earnest for the approaching Covid second wave, I was disgusted but hardly astonished, despite the obvious hypocrisy of these attempts. As a 25-year old, I have spent my entire adult life under a Tory government and whilst I am continually appalled by the moral depths to which they are prepared to sink, I’m far from surprised. Double standards and hypocrisy have been all the rage for as long as I can remember.
After seven months of disastrous government policy – the devastating delay to lockdown caused by the ‘herd immunity’ experiment, the woeful track and trace system that incredibly still doesn’t work despite £12bn spaffed up the wall; eat out to spread the virus, incoherent local lockdowns – it should be no surprise that shifting the blame remains a government priority. According to the self-serving logic of the right-wing, young people are the obvious candidates.
This isn’t because we care less than others about public safety – not only has this myth been debunked it also treats all young people as one monolithic stereotype, erasing the voices of the many young people who are extremely worried about Covid, especially those with underlying health conditions. It’s not even because we have a higher rate of cases reflecting our higher rates of shared housing and public-facing jobs and the government’s failure to support universities to provide remote learning. Primarily it’s because the right-wing understands it has already done so much irrevocable damage to its popularity amongst young people that it has very little left to lose and plenty to gain by laying the blame, however unfairly, on us.
Once we acknowledge that these more blatant hypocrisies are entirely deliberate and based on political self-interest we can look past the smoke-screen of day-to-day outrage they provoke and recognise the broader hypocrisies they disguise. When we’re discussing whether the rise in cases amongst young people is a result of recklessness, for example, we aren’t discussing the fact that we are currently the demographic most at risk of contracting Covid. Of course the virus itself is, in general, less dangerous to young people, as far as we know. But then again this generalisation ignores both our lack of medical knowledge about Covid, especially its long-term effects, and the many young people to whom Covid is a serious threat.
At the same time, young people are generally most vulnerable to the societal and economic impacts of Covid as we are more likely to be living in rented accommodation and working in the low-paid, unstable jobs most at risk of redundancy. Before the pandemic, we were already more likely than any other age-group to be unemployed. Apart from family support, which varies wildly for each person entrenching existing inequalities, there is little safety net left to fall back on after ten years of austerity. The reality of Covid for many young people is that we have been left trying to balance the need to protect our personal and public health with the broader understanding that we have to look out for ourselves, our support networks and our own wellbeing because nobody else will.
This is one of many examples demonstrating the extent to which our lives, educations, careers and politics have been neoliberalised so that every decision we make involves weighing up the personal, economic, political and environmental costs and choosing the least harmful option. Unlike hedge funds and banks, however, we cannot hedge our bets or rely on the government to bail us out when things go wrong. Unlike those in positions of influence who have failed so spectacularly to make any meaningful concessions to address the key crises of our generation – ecological breakdown, white supremacy, deteriorating mental health – we understand that our decisions will have lasting consequences for our physical, mental, societal and planetary health.
Only in this context that we can understand just how breathtakingly contemptible the government’s latest attempts to smear young people really are. Not only are they trying to blame us for their own failings they are falsely accusing us of the exact callous selfishness that they have themselves been wilfully pedalling and profiting from for years. But if we aren’t surprised by the small lies then we certainly shouldn’t be surprised by the big whoppers.
The right understand that the necessarily collective nature of the response to Covid was beginning to unleash a cross-generational sense of community, a recognition of mutual precarity that threatened to upset the rhetoric of inter-generational conflict, turbo-charged since Brexit. Without this divisive rhetoric, people of all ages would be left demanding answers from the government rather than from each other. This is what the government must avoid more than anything and therefore what we should all keep in mind in those inevitable moments of anger and frustration at the situation. Ultimately, this has nothing to do with young people or old people and everything to do with the malicious, self-serving politics of those in power.
Image: Prachatai via Flickr