Solidarity is for Other People – by Peter West-Oram

Solidarity is for Other People

Update July 2020: A paper version of this blog post has now been published in the Jouranl of Medical Ethics. You can access it here or through the hyperlink in the article title. P. West-Oram, ‘Solidarity is for other people: identifying derelictions of solidarity in responses to Covid-19‘, (2020) Journal of Medical Ethics.  

In the context of the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown, solidarity is enacted in a range of ways; it is demonstrated by those who buy groceries for their neighbours who are self-isolating, by those who isolate in the first place, and by people who maintain their distance from one another in public to minimise the risk of transmission to others. Unfortunately, while such solidarity is widespread, it is not universal, and there are instances where people have failed to engage in such behaviours – potentially endangering other people. Given the risks of Covid-19, it is understandable that such actions are subject to intense criticism. However, these solidarity failures must be considered in context, and are relatively minor when considered against the much more serious failures and derelictions of the government.

Just as crisis requires individuals to engage in solidarity with one another, governments must also act in solidarity with their citizens, and provide them with the context in which interpersonal solidarity is possible. Governments can do so by ensuring that health services exist and are adequately funded, staffed, and equipped, and by providing clear information and material support to citizens so that they may engage in solidarity with one another. By any measure, the British government has failed to achieve either of these targets.

The government waited far too long to actively respond to the threat posed by Covid-19, while downplaying its severity. Unclear, contradictory guidance, delivered amidst official communications which minimised or ignored the threat of Covid-19, led to uncertainty in how to act, and of the importance of so doing. Financial support for many has been minimal, and delayed – people were told to work from home, but no support was initially made available to those who could not do so, meaning that choices had to be made between employment and ‘fighting the virus’. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the NHS has been starved of funds for a decade as a result of successive Conservative government’s ideologically motivated programme of austerity. Consequently, NHS trusts are understaffed, underfunded, and underequipped – reports of inadequate personal protective equipment for those treating Covid-19 patients are now ubiquitous for example.

Importantly however, the actions of the government are not merely failures of solidarity, they are active abandonments and devolutions of it. By consciously refusing to engage in solidarity despite its ability to do otherwise, the British government has deliberately abandoned its duties to engage in solidarity with the population of the UK. It has thereby effectively devolved these duties to others who have far less power to deliver an effective response to Covid-19, and who are more vulnerable to it.

Individual people do have duties of solidarity (as well as professional duties, in the case of health care workers) to their compatriots and communities, and failure to fulfil such duties is blameworthy, all other things being equal. However, the costs and challenges of fulfilling those duties have been amplified (and in the case of the professional duties of physicians dangerously so) by the government’s failure and abandonment of its own responsibilities. In emphasising the duties of solidarity held by individuals as a response to Covid-19, the government ignores its own failures, and attempts to shift the blame for the disproportionate impact Covid-19 is predicted to have on the UK individuals operating under significant financial, social, epidemiological, and epistemological constraints.

There are two ways to interpret the phrase ‘solidarity is for other people’; the first is to read it as meaning that we should engage in solidarity with others to protect them from the threat of Covid-19. The second is to interpret it as a rejection of solidarity, a claim that solidarity is something that other people should do. Sadly, recent events show that it is this second interpretation which more accurately reflects the attitudes and behaviours of the government at this time.

Dr. Peter West-Oram



Dr. Peter West-Oram is Lecturer in Bioethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, where his research focuses on questions relating to the ethics and justice of health and health care.



Image by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.