It will be impossible for anyone who lived through the pandemic to forget its onset and the ice bath shock of the first lockdown. It seemed unthinkable that a simple respiratory virus – something so small you can’t even see it with the human eye – could cause the world to grind to a standstill and effectively put millions of people under house arrest. And yet there it was, killing people in untold numbers and paralysing economies across the globe as the stunned populace gazed on in impotent horror.
Responding to the pandemic
For the last 14 years, I’ve worked for the library service in Leeds, mainly in outreach and development roles, engaging with diverse communities to promote the benefits of books and reading for people of all ages. When lockdown hit, with all the city’s libraries closed and an indefinite period of working from home looming, I volunteered to work as a driver delivering food parcels to people all over the city. It was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
The initial remit of the project was simple. Any resident who was self-isolating and had no one to help them access food shopping could call a helpline and request a food parcel, which would be delivered by one of a team of volunteer drivers culled from across the wider council, based at a newly set-up food distribution centre in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city. It didn’t take long for this to change, however.
Once the project had been up and running for a couple of weeks, word got out that the council was giving away free food, and soon residents on low incomes from all over the city were phoning up to ask for help. Over the course of six months, I drove nearly three and a half thousand miles around the city, with the work taking me into the heart of some of the most deprived communities in Leeds. During this time, I saw scenes that are beyond belief in the third decade of the 21st century.
Conservative government’s austerity policies brought to life
I witnessed how years of Conservative government has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots to levels that are shocking to behold at a time when there’s more wealth in the country than ever before. The stark contrast between immense privilege and dire poverty splits the city – and by extension the country – almost in half. I saw first-hand the effects of austerity, and how the savage cuts that started during the Cameron years have left local authorities floundering, unable to cope financially, and lacking vital services when a disaster of the scale of this pandemic hit their communities.
I visited people living in slum houses that should have been demolished decades ago, denied decent housing by the eternal diktat of private profit that allows landlords to become rich while people on low incomes live below the poverty line. I saw communities torn apart by drugs and crime, generations of families living on benefits because they were born in places where aspiration is low and social mobility is practically non-existent.
I met adults who were literally starving. I saw parents struggling to provide basic necessities for young families. I encountered children who looked at everyday food items like they were extravagant birthday gifts. I saw people with severe mental health problems abandoned by the state to fend for themselves. And it struck me that something needed to be done to document all this.
Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic
The book I have written about my experiences – Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic – will be released in June by the award-winning Hebden Bridge-based publisher Bluemoose.
At a time when so many people are worried about spiralling energy bills and rocketing food prices, the book shows how far below the poverty line unimaginable numbers of people are already living. It goes without saying that the communities who will be hit hardest by the current cost-of-living crisis are ones like those depicted in the book, and although it’s shattering to contemplate how things could get any worse for them, it’s clear that yet more hardship is about to decimate them.
The book spans a period of nine weeks from Good Friday to mid-June 2020, when the first restrictions appeared to be on the verge of being lifted. As well as documenting the penury I witnessed on a daily basis, it provides a week-on-week chronology of the early stages of the pandemic, exposing the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in the government’s initial covid response, the disparity between what they said they were doing and what was actually happening on the ground.
Critical questions that need answering
At a time when the war in Ukraine has given the prime minister a temporary reprieve from the negative press about the Downing Street parties, the book is a reminder of how militant the government’s public health messaging – which is quoted extensively in the text – was at the time. This messaging was tinged with the shadow of dystopian totalitarianism, despite recent attempts to play it down in the wake of the parties scandal and Sue Grey’s subsequently damning report.
Two years on and the pandemic is far from over, despite what the government claims. But there’s enough distance now to start looking back, to try to work out how it all happened and what went wrong; how upwards of 160,000 people were allowed to die while elected members partied behind closed doors and lucrative contracts were awarded preferentially to businesses with existing government contacts.
Ghost Signs is an eyewitness, on-the-spot account of those early days, a time capsule, a movie still of lives lived in direst poverty, hidden in plain sight in one of the richest economies in the world. Above all, it’s a snapshot of a city and its people at a time which was surely one of the strangest the nation has ever known and one that will live in its collective memory forever.