Now, late January 2021 – 2021 when we thought it would all be over – we are well over 2 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, with the league table of deaths per million in different countries putting the UK at 6th, now heading toward 100,000 deaths. That really puts us in the world-beating league. But the problem is that Coronavirus is beating the world, posing questions about how we organise ourselves on the planet and what kind of priorities we have. Each dip in the numbers gives false hope, which the government claims credit for, and the next wave, like the last, will be blamed on us.
The UK government under Boris Johnson was clear from the start what its priorities were, with a brutal ideological agenda that was summed up very early on in the phrase ‘herd immunity’. What Boris Johnson meant by ‘herd immunity’ is one survival-of-the-fittest version of the phrase, one which lets the virus rip through a population, that’s us, the ‘herd’, and which weeds out the weak. The admission of Boris Johnson to hospital could have put paid to that, but he survived, and no-one should have been surprised at the headlines in the right-wing tabloid press; he survived because he was ‘resilient’, as if he was tough enough to beat the virus.
Under pressure from scientists, who the UK government at least has to pay lip service to, the ‘herd immunity’ story was put on the back burner, but has always been in the background. What we had instead was deadly ambiguity. It is difficult not to see this ambiguity as deliberate, calculated, designed to provoke anxiety while seeming to assuage it. What is for sure is that the mixed messages from the government, alongside amazingly crooked business deals for their school-chums and neighbours, chimed very well with their political-economic agenda.
What we have seen is an incitement to suspicion of the scientific evidence, not as explicit as under Trump but there nonetheless, and, more dangerous, and in the mix with that suspicion, incitement of individual choice. The message in whatever lockdown we’ve had has been that business has to be protected, that is, when it comes down to it, employer’s rights to bring people to work, and, crucially, it is up to you to decide if and when to break the lockdown. The message is work from home if you can, but go out to work if you have to. This is fake choice, one that the mass of the working class, those in work, cannot avoid to really make for themselves.
The incitement to individual choice is part and parcel of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, remember consists of stripping back the welfare functions of the state, making individuals responsible for their livelihoods, education and health, and, something sometimes forgotten, though Chile 1973 as the first big neoliberal experiment should make us remember it, strengthening of the state’s police functions. It is a combination to which we have another ingredient added, another ingredient that also provokes resentment and anger among those in lockdown when they see the likes of Dominic Cummings flouting the rules; that is conspiracy theories of different kinds, now some really bizarre ones.
What all this amounts to is death on a massive scale. Whatever your take on the origins of the Coronavirus, what is certain is that this is as much a human-made disaster as a so-called ‘natural’ disaster. Boris Johnson is responsible for many of these deaths here. Again, for them, and the idea pops out of the mouths of members of the ruling class every now and then, these are deaths of those whose lives are of ‘less value’.
One way of thinking about this is to see this COVID-19 disaster as what some medical researchers called a ‘syndemic’. A paper in The Lancet late last year argued that while it is useful as shorthand to call this crisis a ‘pandemic’, its character as a ‘syndemic’ draws attention to the way that transmission and morbidity is a function of many different existing factors. That is, the likelihood of catching and dying of the virus is linked with your other life chances and susceptibility to illness. This is a better way of thinking about it than talking about ‘underlying health conditions’, as if those underlying health conditions were the fault of those who suffer and die.
We have a key example here of the ‘intersectional’ nature of the virus crisis, the way that class, race and disability, for example, multiply your chances of dying. The Lancet article politely names this as a problem of ‘inequality’. This virus crisis intensifies every form of exploitation and oppression, and this while the super-rich have been getting richer over the past year. It is exactly a form of the ‘shock capitalism’ that is engineered through military coups, as in Chile in 1973, and wars; an economy is destroyed so it can be rebuilt and in the process the people are crushed, rendered powerless.
So, along every dimension, we have the virus hitting those already oppressed, hitting them more: Whether this is on the lines of class, with hollow cynical advice that you can stay at home to work if you choose, even that you can exercise on the tennis court in your back garden; whether this is disabled people who make up two-thirds of deaths from the virus in the UK and are told their lives are of less value; whether it is BAME people who are more likely to die and more likely to be arrested for breaking lockdown; or whether it is the working women who, according to a recent TUC report, are refused furlough seven times out of ten.
We need a response that speaks with the oppressed instead of against them, a campaign that is working from the base up. The Zero Covid campaign was set up to include the voices of the exploited and oppressed and to provide clear open scientific debate about evidence and strategy. The ‘banner drops’ organised by the campaign, for example, have made it clear that the message must be ‘eliminate the virus’, rather than pretend that the virus is a hoax, and protest rallies have been socially-distanced. We protect each other as we aim to protect everyone.
That means that we need sharp clear lockdown with security and compensation for those unable to go to work. If we had that from the start then we would have been in a different situation than we have today. We need a test and trace system that is really organised through the NHS, with real support for health workers, this instead of the private scam apps. We need a vaccination programme for all, and that must reach out to those who are undocumented, this when there are reports that foreign workers may be excluded. We must be clear that we are against the ‘vaccine nationalism’ that is being pushed not only the Tory government but by the pathetic opposition Labour Party that has spent much of the time agreeing with the government measures. Already the going rate is 25k for a flight to UAE for a jab, while Starmer congratulates the Royal Family on getting jabs saying it is ‘wonderful news’ (for them surely it should be jobs before jabs). And, of course, it means wearing our masks; wearing a mask is a sign of our solidarity with each other.
This is not ‘beyond politics’. This Coronavirus crisis is a political crisis, a function of the kind of political-economic system we live in and struggle against, and now we must struggle in and as part of the Zero Covid campaign.