The Guardian • Issue #1998

The “new normal” life with COVID, two years on

New data shows that the cost of living has increased 3.5 per week in the past year and poverty is once more on the increase as we adapt to the “new normal” of life with COVID-19. In the first year of the pandemic, governments enacted various protective measures to combat the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is no surprise that this coincided with a drop in rates of poverty.

The new data coincides with the phasing out of JobKeeper payments and isolation pay, among the very last protections from the pandemic still in effect. Eviction moratoria, rent relief, social security, and work from home arrangements are increasingly becoming a thing of the past, as the interests of capital push forward towards a new normal.

The experience of the pandemic has shown how dangerous this push can be. A certain amount of debt, poverty, and homelessness are built into the fabric of the capitalist system. The system relies on a class of people who need to sell their labour to survive and incentivises a “race to the bottom” with workers competing for the means to survive.

Marx called the large number of unemployed people who exist at any given time the “reserve army of labour.” As long as there is someone standing by to take a worker’s job, workers have less power to complain about their conditions and so a “race to the bottom” ensues with conditions and wages worsening over time unless there is some intervention by the state to protect the working class.

The COVID measures gave us a glimpse of the kinds of support we could put in place to support the most vulnerable among us. In 2020, governments made an effort to house people experiencing homelessness, with the help of housing support services, and to provide an income for workers who were not able to work during the lockdowns through the JobKeeper program. As a direct result, the percentage of Australians living in poverty fell from 11.8 per cent in 2019 to below ten per cent in 2020.

The latest data shows that that number is now fourteen per cent, representing 3.8 million people. While this may be in part a flow-on effect of the pandemic, this statistic cannot be laid squarely at the feet of COVID-19. It is also a result of low wages, unemployment, high rents, and costs of living as the interests of capital push for things to go back to normal. And for as long as the push toward the normal is allowed to continue unchecked, those numbers will continue to rise.

The COVID measures were not magnanimous gifts from the state or employers. Most of them were fought for by workers and advocacy groups. The most important thing the working class can do to make sure the statistics don’t continue to rise is to organise in our communities to put pressure on bosses, landlords, and the government to reinstate the COVID concessions – and keep them there permanently. We have nothing to lose but our chains!

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