Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic

It will be impossible for anyone who lived through the pandemic to forget its onset and the ice bath shock of the first lockdown. Stu Hennigan witnessed first-hand how Covid 19 tore through Leeds. Then he wrote a book.
June 22, 2022

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.

The day the first lockdown was announced, I was at my mam and dad’s house in Skipton, recovering from a heavy afternoon’s drinking in their sun-trap garden the day before. I’d neglected to buy my mam a Mother’s Day present a couple of weeks before and I had a bit of time off work, so I’d gone round to treat her to a few drinks and a takeaway instead. Their house is right at the bottom of the moor; I’d planned on spending the day climbing to the top and haunting some of my favourite places to blow out the cobwebs, but we all knew the announcement was coming so I had to leave early. Rumours spread like wildfires in small towns, and already there were reports that the police were going to seal off the town, block the roads, and I was worried about getting stuck there away from my wife and kids back home in Leeds. I had no idea that day, as I drove home with my mouth stone dry and my hands shaking a little as I sweated out yesterday’s Stowford Press, that the onset of the pandemic was going to kick-start a chain reaction of events that would change my life.

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 halfway through the third decade of the 21st century.

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.

I’ll never forget some of the things I saw that summer. The little girl who saw the bags of food I’d brought and started dancing around, clapping her hands as if I was Father Christmas giving her the gift she’d always wanted; the woman in a ruined flat who said we were living through a nuclear war, and thought I was an angel; the homeless teenager in the shelter in town with self-harm scars ravaging his arms, and I could see the weight of the whole world hanging like lead in his bones; the people – this happened more than once – who told me they were dying of cancer as blithely as if they were making a comment on the weather, or a new pair of shoes; the man who tore out of his house with his shirt off and fists clenched, screaming abuse at me until I managed to explain I was delivering a food parcel to his neighbour, and when she opened the door she was so thin I could barely see her; a ride up and down the motorway for twenty miles with not a single other vehicle in sight, just me and the M1, a ride was like having front row seats to the end of the world.

The book covers a period of nine weeks that broadly bracket the most severe part of the first lockdown, from Easter weekend 2020 to the middle of June, when the restrictions were only just beginning to ease, but I delivered food for nearly six months, and I witnessed the  problems of poverty, social inequality, addiction, starvation, poor mental health and people living in slum-like conditions on a daily basis. The issues I paid witness to and the frequency with which I saw them highlight the sheer scale of the problem, the vast numbers of vulnerable people affected. I was only one of a large team of drivers, and every single one of them could have written a book of their own detailing the hardships they witnessed every day. These issues are not problems specific to Leeds or even the North of England; they’re endemic in towns and cities throughout the UK and the numbers of people affected must be astronomical.

According to the IFS report Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2020  (Bourquin, P., Joyce, R., Keiller, A N), “The economic implications of the Covid-19 pandemic will mean a reduction in household incomes as workers lose their jobs, earnings fall, and plummeting share prices and interest rates lead to lower incomes from savings and investments”  before going on to say, “the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to lead to […] increases in absolute poverty in the coming years” and that “the measures that have been taken to limit the spread of the virus also mean that falls in income are likely to be sharper among certain types of workers and households than others.” While this is undoubtedly true, it’s worth bearing in mind that the issues faced by these communities may have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they were not caused by it. The root causes of the deprivation I saw so much of that summer is the direct result of a decade and more of deliberate government policy; public services have been slashed, benefits have become harder to claim, and the ill-fated, widely-condemned Universal Credit system has also brought misery to many. The perfect storm created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the continued disaster zone of Brexit and subsequent government policy in the wake of the referendum has added fuel to the flames, with in-work poverty rising steeply and food bank use exploding at a time when donations are falling because more and more people can’t afford to give.

The official response is characteristic; Rachel Maclean, conservative MP for Redditch, suggested that anyone who was struggling should work more hours, or take a better paid job, a rehash of the old li(n)e that anyone who applies themselves can work themselves out of penury, blithely ignoring the fact that poverty isn’t a choice, it’s a condition imposed on people at the bottom of the social scale as a prerequisite of Capitalism; the majority are exploited for the benefit of a tiny minority, in a way that’s getting more and more pronounced as the distribution of wealth becomes more unequal than ever before. As ever though, it’s far easier to blame the individuals affected than it is to discuss the systemic structural and political issues that are the root cause of poverty.

It’s grossly offensive to suggest that the people who clean our hospitals, stack our supermarket shelves, drive our delivery trucks – who, lest we forget, were lauded as Key Workers in the early days of the pandemic – need to work harder to improve their lot, when they’re often forced to work long hours of intensely physical labour, with precarious working arrangements, to make up for their pitifully low wages. Another minister, Lee Anderson, conservative MP for Ashford, suggested that people on low incomes could save money by buying cheaper food, and said that nutritious meals could be made for 30p. For someone on a basic salary of 80k +, plus expenses – at a time when some nurses earn only a quarter of that - to be lecturing anyone on how to live frugally, is utterly reprehensible, but demonstrates perfectly how out of touch this government is, and the contempt in which it holds anyone outside of their pampered, privileged elite.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressel depicts the lives of a group of painters and decorators, scratching a living as best they can in an unforgiving labour market. Some days, they are lucky enough to get work, and therefore will eat. On others, they get no work, and go hungry. Sound familiar? The book was written in 1914, but many people now are still working in the same way – it’s just that these days we say they’re on Zero Hours contracts and class them as being fully employed, another way of fudging the figures in the age of Fake News and alternative facts.

In the wake of the scandal around the Downing Street parties and Sue Grey’s subsequent report, the book is also a reminder of how stringent the first lockdown was. In recent times the government have tried to play this down, with ministers suggesting that NHS staff were all drinking after work, for example, but the book quotes extensively from their public health messaging at the time and shows how much of a totalitarian shadow was cast across the country in the early days of lockdown. It’s often overlooked that the Coronavirus Act  March 2020) created a number of new criminal offences relating to the breaking of lockdown and/or social distancing rules, although it’s clear now that those responsible for creating the bill and passing it through parliament didn’t think that the same laws applied to them. There have been widespread calls for the Prime Minister to resign, even from within his own party, but it’s clear that he’s determined to cling to his post like brown stuff to a blanket and isn’t going anywhere for now.

When Cameron came to power in 2010 and the spectre of Austerity was raised, I remarked to my wife that we’d be back to the 80s before we knew it. I was only half-joking, and things have turned out even worse than anyone could have imagined. Ghost Signs published on 23rd June, a day on which the large parts of the country ground to a halt as a result of strikes by railway workers who are seeking fairer pay amid spiralling inflation, rocketing fuel prices and an exponential increase in the cost of living that will affect all but the most affluent households. Needless to say, those hardest hit will be like the people depicted in Ghost Signs, which shows how appalling their living conditions were in 2020. From what I witnessed, it’s hard to imagine how life could get any worse for these vulnerable communities, but in the intervening two years an awful lot has happened which will have an indescribably negative impact, and it feels as if things have still got a long way to go before we reach the end of this vicious downward spiral. It’s my hope that Ghost Signs can play a role in raising awareness of the scandalous deprivation that millions of people are currently facing, and in doing so affect some kind of change for the better, although without wishing to end on a sour note, the harsh reality is that it’s difficult to see this happening under a government who seem keen to hang on to power at all costs and are prepared to sacrifice anything – especially the majority of the people they are meant to serve – to do it.

'Ghost Signs' is published by Bluemoose Books in June 2022