A call for collective action in a time of individualism

Thatcher’s infamously said ‘there is no such thing as society’.

Oliver Harman dissects how it is tricky for the British population to act with society in mind when we’ve had 30 years of a certain ideology pushing otherwise.

Read his illuminating first piece of a two part series on Covid-19.

The UK is facing the greatest collective action problem encountered by many citizens in their lifetime. The Covid-19 pandemic has smashed open any cracks in the UK’s socio-economic structures and public policy responses. Latest data shows the UK is experiencing the second-highest death rate of any country at this time of the crisis, and people must ask why. One reason may be that collective problems require a group to find a shared narrative to enhance their status and achieve a common objective. However, with the current narratives, we are failing. Citizens are not meeting the requirement to understand how their decisions today may impact society tomorrow and act differently.

To flatten the curve, social distancing and self-isolation are prescribed. Unfortunately for some people, whatever the narrative provided, they cannot take this action. Those in lower income jobs or zero hours contracts typically cannot for instance, isolate and work from home. Also, the fall-back of statutory sick pay in the UK is less than half offered by European peers. This precarious employment and holes in social safety nets mean there is no choice or some but to risk infection and transmission. The government has moved slowly by international standards to account for this, although the pace is quickening.

For others, there is a choice, but a failure to choose—an inability to find or engage with the necessary shared community and national narrative. Weak and mixed government messages resulted in blurred boundaries of expected norms and hence citizens chose individual action. For example, within communities, some teachers, those continuing to look after key workers’ children descended to pubs on Friday night. Similarly, Londoners on Friday were moving around their city at a rate about five times that of their European and US counterparts. Both risk high transmission and a failure to account for consequences on society. 

Nationally, collective action is also failing. Citizens leaving cities seeking refuge in rural counterparts act in the personal interest of those individuals but puts the community interest of these regions at risk. Firstly, the high density and face to face contact in cities mean our urban areas are 3 – 4 weeks ahead in contagion. The urbanites’ exodus brings the virus with them - intensifying the spreading. Secondly, with this, they further increase strain on smaller and already underfunded local healthcare systems doubling the difficulty for rural counterparts. 

Judging by the international response, the UK is in the minority in its approach. Many of our European and Asian equivalents are seemingly acting more like a collective in this time in crisis. It is unclear what drives this difference. Some may point to leadership, however perhaps this stems from a deficiency in thinking collectively. The overarching ideology permeating through the vast majority of our UK governments since 1979 was that of the individual and not the collective. Stemming from the Thatcherite view that ‘There is no such thing as society’, it might be clear why we are finding it difficult to act as one. While she did nuance the remark, the etching of these seven words was onto the minds of citizens and the British long-term narrative.

There are several factors at play affecting UK’s accelerating death rate. However, the UK must answer the call for collective action in a time of individualism. Covid-19 is not the first collective action problem faced by the UK, and it certainly will not be the last. Yet it must be used as an unfortunate opportunity to re-learn how to leverage working together to achieve common objectives for challenges to come.

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