Covid-19 and how to fight it
Jack Conrad presents a communist response to the combined health and economic crisis
A catastrophe is threatening us all. Worst-case scenarios have billions being infected by Covid-19 and millions dying prematurely. There has not been anything like it since the 1918 influenza pandemic. The H1N1 virus infected 500 million - about a quarter of the world’s population - and killed some 50 million. More than the death toll in World War I.
Starved of resources for over a decade of austerity, the UK national health service is at risk of collapse. Globally fatalities from Covid-19 are already well over 15,000. And the curve is heading steeply upwards.
As governments impose lockdowns, close schools and universities, and tell people to work from home, economic activity has plummeted. Some have panicked and stripped supermarket shelves - the butt of easy condemnation, but the inevitable product of the ‘me, me, me’ culture. Clearly, though, massive profits are being racked up. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Lidl, M&S, etc must be coining it in.
Of course, the biggest panic came from the capitalist class. Stock markets plunged. Historically, the only parallels are the 1929 Great Crash and the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. There has been a rush to the safety of the dollar. Nonetheless, hedge funds have, through short selling, “made billions” betting against “shares and currency”, amidst the contagion of bourgeois fear1. Yet more profits are racked up.
We must insist that the capitalist class, not the working class, pays for this crisis. Profiteering must be subject to brutal levels of taxation. Speculators too. Only possible though by facilitating general access to the computer records of businesses. Secrecy and offshoring profits must be ended. Tax havens - not least the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands - must be abolished. Capitalists must be forced to pay their taxes.
It is our class that is bearing the health and economic brunt of Covid-19. Her Majesty the Queen has retreated to Windsor Castle and Prince Charles to Balmoral. Other members of the mega-rich class have done the same thing. They have their island paradises and country estates. It is the working class - especially those over 70, those suffering an underlying illness - who are dying. It is, also, members of the working class, especially at the younger end of the age spectrum, who are being laid off, put on unpaid holiday leave or forced into accepting savage pay cuts.
Governments have responded to the economic slump by bailing out the capitalist class: quantitative easing, massive tax breaks to companies, cheap lines of credit and nationalising a huge chunk of the wages bill - stupidly, here in Britain, with the full blessing of the TUC and the trade union bureaucracy.
There is, moreover, an ever-present danger that governments will turn emergency measures - some absolutely necessary, given present circumstances - into the new normal. All in the name of preserving health, of course. Under the UK’s coronavirus legislation people can be detained, put in isolation, stopped from meeting together in groups of over two. Smartphones can be used to monitor our location. Facial recognition cameras single us out in a crowd. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has authorised his security agency to deploy surveillance technology to track coronavirus patients. Clearly we already live in a mass-surveillance society and hard-won democratic rights can thereby easily be lost. Elections have been delayed. Will strikes be next, when it comes to restrictions?
Rightwing forces blame the coronavirus pandemic on migrants, tourists, foreign countries. Donald Trump talks of the ‘Chinese virus’. Having dismissed the World Health Organisation as just another club of “clever people”, Nigel Farage too blames China for the outbreak. Eduardo Bolsonaro, the influential politician and son of Jair, tweets: “The blame for the global coronavirus pandemic has a name and surname: the Chinese Communist Party.”2 Racist incidents and attacks have correspondingly shot upwards. Meanwhile, in China, Iran and Russia conspiracy theorists peddle the idea of the US accidentally, or deliberately, releasing a biological weapon. Absurd, crazy, but sadly not without traction amongst the gullible. In the short term we should expect the growth of xenophobia, irrationality and the search for individual solutions.
In normal times, the working class movement would respond to mass sackings, the use of emergency measures to undermine democratic rights and an upsurge in racism by organising meetings, resolutions, rallies, political strikes and street protests. That is problematic nowadays, to say the least - these are not normal times.
China has been reporting that it is now on top of the infection. Internal cases have been dramatically reduced and new cases are coming from Chinese citizens returning from abroad. This has brought praise from the World Health Organisation. Not that China is above criticism. The outbreak began in the filthy Wuhan market: full of wet fish, caged animals and all manner of jungle meat. Covid-19 probably “evolved” with a leap from bat to human after a “single introduction.”3
The government of Xi Jinping knew about the sudden flare-up of coronavirus 13 days before the public were warned. Doctor Li Wenliang issued his celebrated letter on December 30 2019. In return, he was given an official police warning for “spreading rumours”. Why was the Chinese state determined to silence him? Stockmarkets might overreact. Growth rates might further decline. This “bungling” allowed the virus to rapidly spread4. With the full knowledge of the central authorities, there was even a banquet in Wuhan for 40,000 families to celebrate the lunar new year. An act of criminal complacency.
What about Donald Trump? His first public comment about coronavirus came on January 22, in a TV interview from Davos with CNBC’s Joe Kernen. He asked Trump: “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” The US president responded: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”5 By this point, however, the seriousness of the virus was becoming all too apparent. China was, at last, starting to take drastic measures and was on the verge of locking down Wuhan.
For two months Trump gave no priority to public health. His priorities lay elsewhere: reassuring stockmarkets, blaming the Obama administration, comparing Covid-19 with flu … and setting himself up to win his second term. Towards that end, his intention now seems to be to “reopen” the US economy well before the outbreak is expected to subside - another act of criminal complacency that has lead the WHO into warning that the US could easily become the next epicentre of the outbreak.
Boris Johnson is hardly different. He too sought to reassure stockmarkets and play down the coronavirus danger. When his government finally presented its strategy, it centred on mitigation: ie, let 60% of the population go down with the infection, thereby bringing about herd immunity. Neil Ferguson, Imperial College’s top epidemiologist, calculated that this approach would quickly overwhelm the NHS and “lead to the deaths of 250,000 people in the UK”6. Once his analysis became widely known, there came the sudden about-turn. Letting hundreds of thousands of Tory voters die was never going to be politically acceptable anyway. Over 70s, note, are “twice as likely” to vote Tory than Labour.7
Mitigation changed to containment and eventually, after a long delay, the closure of clubs, bars, restaurants and schools. Due to the initial complacency, there had, nonetheless, been another terrible delay in taking the necessary measures to safeguard the population. People were soon dying by the score. Then the hundreds.
There are those, including respected figures on the left, who say that nobody saw Covid-19 coming. Well that is certainly true of this particular strain of coronavirus. Nobody could possibly predict Covid-19. It was unforeseeable, a random mutation that happened in Wuhan South China Seafood Wholesale Market, some time during November 2019. But the outbreak of a pandemic? Well, that was easy to predict. Leave aside the professional literature, all one need do is read New Scientist. A popular, but reputable journal, aimed at non-specialists like myself. On occasion I pick up a copy. As a result, back in 2008, I could write this:
Pestilence. The spread of Aids and the acute danger of a mutated H5N1 avian flu virus becoming a devastating human pandemic are inextricably bound up with capitalist social relations. Poverty, social atomisation and industrialised agriculture breed and spread diseases. Health authorities warn of over a hundred million deaths in worst-case bird flu scenarios.8
If someone like myself could appreciate the danger, it is all too obvious that the highly educated, highly intelligent, medical and scientific advisors that governments employ would have been collating the latest epidemiological studies and drawing on the best minds in the field. Regular warnings would have landed on the desks of their masters. Contingency plans would not have been lacking either. Indeed, it is surely the case that wargaming simulation exercises are organised on a regular basis involving all the relevant arms of the state.
So, given the tardy response to Covid-19, the visible lack of preparation, the running down of health services, the shortage of acute hospital beds and lack of protective wear, one thing above all is abundantly clear: governments criminally ignored their medical and scientific advisors.
How to explain this astonishing complacency? It is clear that governments in the US, China, the UK, etc, are committed to serving the interests of capital accumulation … and, therefore the billionaires and the multibillionaires.
Frankly, Xi, Trump and Johnson deserve to go on trial. Though we programmatically oppose capital punishment as a matter of principle, perhaps an exception should be made in such a case. I, personally, would advocate a firing squad.
Covid-19 could have been stopped in its tracks months ago, in December or January. It is now far more difficult.
To roll back the rate of new infections it is clear what measures are needed. To begin with, there has to be testing, testing and yet more testing. In the UK they increased from about 1,000 per day in February to about 6,000 in March. Pathetic. True, Boris Johnson promises an increase to 25,000 per day by late April. But note this: Germany has been managing 160,000 tests per week since the outbreak began. Without a massive ramping up, NHS staff face the danger of contracting the virus and unwittingly passing it on to their patients and colleagues. The incubation period is between one and 14 days, but on average five days. Testing allows carriers, who are not showing symptoms, to self-isolate and therefore slow the spread of the virus.
That NHS staff were not immediately supplied with protective masks, gowns and eye gear testifies to years of underfunding and underpreparation. The same is true of the lack of ventilators and critical care hospital beds. Indeed over the years 1987/88-2018/19 the number of acute and general hospital beds has been cut by 44%. A short-sighted, cost-cutting, Labour, Tory-Lib Dem and Tory policy.
The government has taken over the private care sector and that will provide extra staff and extra beds for the NHS. It should be stressed, however, that this amounts to a “bailout”. Instead of requisitioning private hospitals for at least the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government will cover the “full capacity” costs of companies such as BMI Healthcare/Circle Healthcare, Spire Healthcare and Nuffield Heath. With coronavirus ripping through the British population, these companies faced an avalanche of cancellations from rich patients, particularly from the Gulf states. So, to put it mildly, the deal with the government comes as a “relief”.9
People should keep their physical distance from each other and not gather in groups. That is the considered medical advice. The vast majority of people will comply voluntarily, but there will always be a minority who will not. Against them draconian measures should be imposed. Our movement stands for solidarity and does not take kindly to anti-social behaviour. Morally, for us, those who behave in an irresponsible manner when it comes to coronavirus are no different from motorists who drink and drive, ignore red traffic lights or speed over zebra crossings.
It is right, though, that those who cannot go to work because of childcare, lack of transport or psychological stress should not be punished. Likewise, if the government is prepared to cover employers for 80% of normal wages - up to £2,400 per month - to retain staff, then that approach ought to apply to those forced into unemployment by Covid-19 too. That must include the 5.5 million who are officially self-employed.
The government’s £20 increase to universal credit might appear to be a generous move. However, that still means living on a pittance of just £323 per month. The fact of the matter is that some 2.3 million people have been forced to live in extreme poverty. We are talking about the non-reproduction of labour-power at the existing cultural level. In other words, social retrogression. Universal credit must to be set at a far higher level: £1,000 a month would not be unreasonable as an immediate measure.
Those doing essential work that puts them in regular contact with the general public - and that not only includes NHS staff - need protective wear. Such people include those working in supermarkets, mass transport, banking, delivery drivers, social services, etc. But a positive outcome relies not merely on waiting for the government to act. There needs to be a concerted drive by the trade unions to organise and protect all essential workers. Usdaw, Unite, GMB ought to take the lead. If the holders of cushy positions and bloated salaries hold back - doubtless in the name of the national interest - then rank-and-file militants need to take the initiative: leaflets, emails, websites. A few well-chosen wildcat strikes would surely serve to bring employers into line.
Housing is another vital arena of struggle. Rent controls are urgently needed. What people - and, through housing benefits, local authorities - are obliged to pay out, amounts to usury. Mortgage companies must suspend all repayment demands for those made unemployed or put on short-time working. Rough sleepers need to be properly housed, not crammed into tourist-deserted hotels. The huge number of empty properties, not least in London’s most affluent boroughs, must be immediately requisitioned.
Instead of bailing out car plants, pub chains, airlines, etc, we say, nationalise them. Staff should be encouraged to retrain to deal with the pandemic. There is an urgent need for hospital orderlies and delivery drivers.
Not least to save lives, detention centres need to be closed. Prisons must be emptied of all but the most dangerous offenders. Rehabilitation should always be the watchword, not punishment.
Not so long ago (well, at least for me) in August 1986, summing up the neoliberal ethos - a period of reaction of a special kind - Ronald Reagan, the 40th US president, declared this: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m here from the government and I’m here to help’.” Imagine that now. He would, quite rightly, be treated as insane.
A year later Margaret Thatcher said much the same thing: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
The big idea being, of course, that the state was the problem. People should aspire to home ownership, self-employment, private healthcare and self-reliant individualism. Given Covid-19, an obvious absurdity. Social solidarity, social responsibility and social control are - for the moment at least - the new common sense. No wonder Rishi Sunak talked about this not being the time for “ideology and orthodoxy”.10 He was referring, of course, to the ideology of Friedrich von Hayek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and the orthodoxy of neoliberalism.
Johnson’s government has, in fact, been acting fully in the spirit of Kriegssozialismus (war socialism). That is, the planning, the control measures, the temporary suspension of the law of value, as practised by imperial Germany during the course of World War I. Lenin was much impressed. He took Kriegssozialismus as his model of what could be done in a Russia ruled by the workers’ and peasants’ soviets.
Corona socialism can be considered in the same way. When society is faced with a combined health and economic crisis, so-called free-market capitalism proves to be more than useless. Private medicine, private insurance, private enterprise, private interest point to social collapse. The normal workings of capitalism have to be overridden … even by the traditional party of big business.
Yet, by maintaining the sort of measures we have been seeing over the last few weeks, we could abolish poverty, hunger, homelessness and unemployment almost at a stroke. We could also begin to really tackle the even bigger threat of rapid climate change. Markets cannot do that. Alone planning and social control can.
Covid-19 is a product of natural evolution, probably before it entered its first human host, but there is here a dialectic between nature and society. Covid-19 follows the arteries of the world capitalist economy. That is what makes it a social disease, which can only be combated internationally. Because Covid-19 respects no national laws, knows no national borders, there is a distinct danger that it will return again and again. With our present state of knowledge we do not know whether people who contract Covid-19 will have immunity for life or just one or two years. Scientists say that an effective vaccine “will take 12-18 months” to develop.11
It is quite conceivable that China, Singapore, South Korea, Italy and Japan will all get on top of Covid-19. They might eventually reduce rates of internal infection to zero. But what of countries such as India, Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa? They will surely see massive outbreaks. They have no effective health services. Nor can their populations easily self-isolate for weeks, let alone months on end. The virus will therefore surely decimate the so-called global south … and through the arteries of the capitalist world market return to China, Singapore, South Korea, Italy and Japan. What began in the primitive conditions of the Wuhan market will fly back in on a Boeing 777 or an Airbus 330.
The pandemic therefore necessitates not one country bidding against another, but a closely coordinated response based on science. Contradictorily, capitalism has united the world economically, but politically divides it into rival states. Between the imperialist countries there are clashes, sometimes wars, and a constant jockeying for position. Those at the top of the imperialist hierarchy exploit and suck weaker countries dry.
When it comes, will the anti-Covid-19 vaccine be administered to all free of charge? Or will it be sold only to countries and individuals who can afford it? The basic needs of humanity cry out for the rule of the working class and a society that produces according to the principle of need, not the drive to make a profit.
1. The Daily Telegraph March 14 2020.
2. The Guardian March 19 2020.
4. Financial Times February 16 2020.
5. The New York Times March 15 2020.
6. Financial Times March 21-22 2020.
7. The Guardian October 27 2019.
8. I wrote this in a draft manifesto for the abortive Campaign for a Marxist Party. For a selection of more recent New Scientist articles on the danger of a pandemic see - www.newscientist.com/article-topic/pandemics.
9. Financial Times March 21-22 2020.