Working in the arts is a real job – don’t you dare ask us to retrain!

Arts workers are among the worst hit by the COVID-19 employment crisis. Professor Almuth McDowall asks why the government is so reluctant to offer support.

As a former classically trained dancer, I have been deeply moved by the plight of my colleagues working in the performing arts across theatre, music and dance.

Our pioneering research with PiPA in 2018 highlighted that over 54% of people working in this sector are self-employed, almost four times as many as in the UK general population. One in three don’t have a steady contract. Unlike in any other industry, it is common and expected that people finance the work which they love through other income. Teaching, cleaning, waitressing – you name it, they’ve done it. Taken together, this has always made for a toxic cocktail of precarious work. But never more toxic than now, as theatres are closed, orchestras can practice socially distanced at best (witness the recent ‘come back’ streaming of the Royal Opera House), and dancers now rather famously, thanks to social media posts aplenty, train in kitchens, bedrooms, on balconies or in the park.

Yet, the notion remains that work in the arts is somehow not real work, but a privilege that only the few can indulge. Recent controversy about the ‘Cyber Add’  illustrates the point. BA Acting student Ruby Hoggarth shares an alternative view about life in the arts during the pandemic:

“Graduating during a pandemic into an industry that is in complete crisis has been hard enough, but being nationally downgraded and humiliated by the very people who allegedly have our best interests at heart has been an embarrassment like no other. Not only has this media strategy grossly disregarded the importance of our industry, especially at a time of national crisis when people turn to the arts for healing, it has shown us that this government have little humanity and no ability to believe in the beauty of art.”

It’s a feeling BA Musical Theatre student Alex Conder can relate to:

“I chose to move away from home to study in the UK as a Musical Theatre student as I knew the spirit and quality of the art made in Great Britain is second to none. To then graduate and be told my career in the arts is viewed as a hobby or “not viable”—after the world has done nothing but devour art in the pandemic—is not only a slap in the face to our current artists, but also tarnishing an incredible historic legacy of fine art and creativity in this country.”

Along with hospitality, retail and manufacturing , the arts are the one of hardest hit sectors in the UK. Companies had to make judicious use of the furlough scheme which is now coming to an end. What next? Theatres will find it hard to put on productions at a profit with social distancing measures in place, as even the sell-out run of an adapted Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre demonstrated. We can’t very well take the roofs of all our theatres to aid ventilation, either!

So who’s responsibility is it? Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said that all workers need to adapt to the changing world of work and life in the wake of COVID-19. Well, those working in the performing arts have shown formidable resilience and adaption skills to date, our data shows that many juggled two if not three jobs to make ends meet and have a reasonable income. Tom Rogers, a soloist with Birmingham Royal Ballet has long branched out, initiating his own podcast series, Tom & Ty Talk, and as a guest editor for his company.

Tom says “For me it is vital that people working in the arts respond to the times we are in through creativity and self expression. Despite the political and social upheaval brought about by COVID-19 and our current government, the desire for art and culture remains. By continuing to be creative and bringing art to our communities, we will remind society and this naïve government of the true value arts and culture plays in all our lives.”

Chancellor Sunak seems to have forgotten that the arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy and gives jobs to 363,700 people.

The enjoyment and quality of life the arts bring to our lives is, however, much harder to measure. I know that I am privileged as I earn a reasonable income which I spend first and foremost on the arts. Life has lost its technicolour, since frequent carefree visits to the Royal Ballet, Sadlers Wells, Birmingham Royal Nutcracker seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, and London musicals are no more. I miss the bonding experience of going to see live music with my three teenage girls or treating my mum to a classical concert visit together.

These are small worries in comparison to existential crisis. The stress and worry caused by the uncertainty and lack of support is taking a toll on those working in the arts. Is Universal credit really an option? Of course it isn’t, as this quote from Geddy Stringer illustrates vividly:

“I timed my move to London terribly, having just finished a somewhat interrupted year on the MA in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. There’s been no clear support from the government and no industry to work in. I’ve been trying desperately to get a part-time job elsewhere, but the job market is a minefield to say the least. My only option has been Universal Credit. I know that this can’t last forever, nor do I want to take it for much longer. But until the government sees the arts as a viable and lasting career option – instead of a hobby – and gives it the support it has long justified, then there isn’t really anywhere else to go.”

So what is the answer? A government funded rescue package doesn’t come soon enough. But a rescue package is exactly that – a sticking plaster. What we need is a long-term strategic solution, as COVID-19 is not going to go away in a hurry. More than ever, we need to continue to celebrate the past, present and future of the arts as  part of our legacy and identity.

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Student life in the time of COVID-19

As the new academic year commences soon on 5 October, this blog summarises the current public health advice and information to remind students what they need to know before the university term starts.  

Birkbeck's main building, Torrington Square

Birkbeck’s main building, Torrington Square

Protect yourself, your university and the wider community remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’.

  • Wash your hands regularly 
  • The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing
  • We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings
  • Get a test and self-isolate if you develop symptoms 
  • Use the NHS Test and Trace app

Whether you’re a new or returning student you’ll no doubt have lots of questions or concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact your student life. Whether you are already based in London or moving to the city, you’ll need to know what actions you should take to keep yourself safe but also fellow students, university staff and the local community. This blog summarises the important public health advice and information to remind you of what you need to know before the university term starts.   

Public health basics  

You’ve probably been looking forward to starting or returning to university, your friends but it’s essential to keep the public health basics front of mind and always remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’. 

Your ‘household’ will consist of your family or flatmates that you share your home with or if you are living in university halls your halls of residence will let you know what makes up your household. 

Follow the student guidance and booking process for visiting the Birkbeck libraryWe will have very limited on-campus classes and events in the autumn term, but this is under constant review and we will update you as plans change.

The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing. We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings.

To stay safe while travelling try to avoid car sharing and using public transport at peak times. Walk or cycle when it’s possible and safe to do so. These basics will help protect you, university life and local residents, especially those that are more vulnerable. 

If you’re a student in the clinically extremely vulnerable group, having previously been shielding, and you have a particular health concern you should seek medical advice.

Moving to your university home 

Be sure to follow the government’s latest advice on coronavirus. London is not currently listed as an area with additional restrictions, but if you’re coming from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, remember that the rules and restrictions are different to those in England. It’s also a good idea to get up to speed on the overall advice on staying safe outside your home and find out your new local council so you can keep uptodate on local guidance.  

If you’re an international student coming to the UK from abroad, make sure you provide your journey and contact details before you travel to the UK and you know whether you need to self-isolate for 14 days when you arrive, and read the guidance on entering the UK safely.  

International travel restrictions and local restrictions can change quickly and without much warning so be sure to keep an eye on the latest guidance while making your travel plans.

What to do if you need to self-isolate 

If you test positive for coronavirus while at university, the rules on self-isolation remain the same. You must self-isolate for 10 days and follow NHS guidance. Your other close contacts that will be informed by NHS Test and Trace if they should self-isolate. 

If you’re living in university accommodation where someone in your ‘household’ (as set out by the accommodation management team) has symptoms of coronavirus or tests positive you must let the management team know. 

Wherever you live, you should self-report on My Birkbeck so the university can offer any extra support you might need for your course 

NHS Test and Trace 

Make sure the university has your latest personal details to ensure the NHS Test and Trace can get in touch if they need to – you can update your personal details on you’re MyBirkbeck profile. 

If you or anyone you’ve had close contact with test positive for coronavirus, you’ll be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and asked to self-isolate. If you are contacted, you will be asked to provide them with information they’ll need to help stop the spread of the virus. 

The NHS Test and Trace app is part of the national effort to get us back doing the things we love and every person who downloads the app will be helping in the fight against coronavirus. The app will help you to report symptoms, order a coronavirus test, check in to venues by scanning a QR code and help the NHS trace those who may have coronavirus. The app will do all this while protecting your identity and data security. The app will be available shortly so do the right thing and download it and encourage your student household and friends to do likewise.

Got symptoms – get a test 

Make sure you are clear about the symptoms of coronavirus and when you should get a test. If you have any of the following symptoms you should get a test: 

  • a high temperature 
  • a new, continuous cough 
  • a loss of, or change to, your sense of smell or taste

You can book a test on line at GOV.UK at https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test or by phoning NHS 119.

If you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, you can self-report on your MyBirkbeck profile.

Be mindful of your mental health 

Recent months haven’t been fun or easy for anyone not least of all students. The new online resource at Student Space has a variety of useful mental health and wellbeing materials that can support you. Public Health England has also published general guidance on mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19.

Your role is crucial 

By following the guidance on washing your hands; keeping your distance; not socialising with more than 6 people; wearing a face covering; using the NHS Test and Trace app, self-isolating and getting a test if you have symptoms you are helping to save lives. Respecting the rules will keep you, your friends and family healthy, and your university town a safe and enjoyable place to live. 

We will continue to post updated on Birkbeck’s coronavirus information page, and in the weekly email to students.  

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COVID-19 in prisons – a major public health risk

Catherine Heard, Director of the World Prison Research Programme at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on prison populations.

Prison

The coronavirus pandemic presents formidable challenges for prisons worldwide – challenges they will struggle to meet, with potentially grave consequences for the health of prisoners, prison staff, their families, and all of us.

This is a fast-moving situation: since the outbreak was declared a pandemic on 12 March, prisoners and prison staff have tested positive in several European countries, and prisoners have died in England and France. These cases will only be the tip of the iceberg globally. With prison health systems in so many parts of the world struggling to provide even basic healthcare, many sick prisoners and prison staff will not have been tested. Overcrowded and under-resourced prisons offer the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of any contagious disease, including COVID-19, within and beyond their confines.

Last year, we published a report examining the effects of failed penal policies through the lens of health. We showed that well over 60% of countries have overcrowded prison systems (based on information held on our World Prison Brief database). Our research included evidence from ten diverse jurisdictions across five continents. Prisoners spoke of extreme overcrowding (for example, 60 men sharing cells built for 20 in Brazil); inadequate medical treatment, with too few doctors to deal even with routine health issues let alone serious disease outbreaks; constant hunger; lack of fresh air and exercise; shared buckets instead of toilets; not enough fresh water or soap; having to eat while seated on the toilet due to lack of space in a shared cell.

These are the realities of prisons across the world. They provide important context for the World Health Organisation’s warning that global efforts to tackle the spread of the disease may fail without proper attention to infection control inside prisons.

How have prison systems around the world responded to the pandemic? Many prison authorities – including in England & Wales – have suspended visits to prisoners, and cancelled temporary release schemes. In Columbia, Brazil, India, Italy, Romania and Lebanon, prisoners have rioted at these measures and in protest at the life-threatening conditions in which they are being held. Prisoner deaths, escapes and widespread violence have been reported.

More recently, some governments have responded by releasing prisoners: in Turkey, legislation was passed to release 100,000 of the country’s roughly 286,000 prisoners; similar steps have been taken in Iran and are under consideration in the United States, Canada and Ireland. In England and Wales, the government has so far declined to do this, despite the severe challenges already facing our overcrowded prison estate.

Now, detailed guidance from WHO, running to 32 pages, should leave no government in doubt about the serious risks presented by the virus, and how to tackle them. It states: ‘The risk of rapidly increasing transmission of the disease within prisons or other places of detention is likely to have an amplifying effect on the epidemic, swiftly multiplying the number of people affected.’ It calls for ‘strong infection prevention and control measures, adequate testing, treatment and care’ and provides detail on what this means in practice.

The parlous state in which prisons find themselves throughout the world today will make it difficult for them to follow the guidance, as they lack the resources – human, material, and financial – with which to do so. Even before the pandemic they were struggling to provide basic sanitation and healthcare for those in their care, as our research has shown.

COVID-19 provides the clearest illustration yet that prison health is public health. It is more important than ever for our governments and prison administrations to abide by the principle, enshrined in international law, that prisoners have an equal right to health and healthcare. Realistically, the only way that most countries could afford to meet this obligation is by first reducing their use of incarceration. This means ruling out custody for less serious, non-violent offending; and reversing the recent growth in the length of prison sentences.

It also means cutting substantially the use of pre-trial detention.  In America, thousands of the country’s nearly half a million pre-trial detainees are in jail for no better reason than that they cannot afford bail – although senator Kamala Harris has called for this to end.

No one should be remanded in custody unless absolutely necessary. But, of the more than three million people in pre-trial detention across the world, a large proportion are there purely because they cannot afford bail, or their country’s courts are hopelessly backlogged (a situation that will only worsen as courts around the world are forced to stop hearing all but the most urgent matters because of the current health emergency). On 2 April, we will release the latest global data on pre-trial prisoner numbers. It will reveal a significant upward trend, and should provide a wake-up call for governments the world over.

All news items and other sources referred to in this piece can be accessed via a dedicated COVID-19 page on ICPR’s World Prison Brief database: https://www.prisonstudies.org/news/news-covid-19-and-prisons

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