By Ed Bober
This pandemic is an early warning of what the climate crisis will bring to humanity: a greatly reduced inability to travel, scarcity including the risk of starvation, the collapse and overwhelming of services to protect the population.
All politicians will face new levels of criticism and scrutiny by the mass of the people. In terms of political responses, there are some similarities with the second world war, except that today’s leading capitalist politicians have far less understanding and insight than the capitalist leaders of the 1940s.
Churchill’s government requisitioned the resources that were needed to mass produce military aircraft. Johnson’s cabinet ministers at first just humbly appealed to manufacturers that they would pay if only you make more surgical masks! It is as if thirty years of rhetoric against state intervention had made today’s generation of capitalist “leaders” really believe that the state can’t do anything effective… until reality hit these cocooned little Eton boys in the face.
This crisis makes huge demands on centralised government. The countries that have been most successful in limiting the damage have implemented rigorous testing and restriction of movement very early.
This virus makes the case for equality of citizens even more blatantly obvious. It does not discriminate who it infects. No-one can buy immunity. It is a matter of public health policy. In Singapore, schoolchildren have been having their temperatures taken three times a day since mid-January. At a very early stage, the Singapore government created the human resources to make two random checks per day on any citizen who has been told to self-isolate. This requires investment and training, a responsibility something that many Western governments have been shedding for the past 30 years. (Singapore is an exceptional capitalist economy, based on a city state which has thrived as an entreport and is now totally reliant on migrant manual workers who have almost no rights)
Like the epidemics of the 19th century, which forced the upper classes to understand that sewage systems were necessary everywhere, this virus too will illustrate that the rich can’t buy their own safe place on an infected planet.
It is no longer possible for right wing politicians to claim that publicly owned and free health services are “unaffordable”. Rather, within the space of a few days it has become obvious that attempts to cut these services have been a terrible mistake and that less efficient, private forms of health service are failing to meet the needs of society. Universal health care, free at the point of use, is needed in an epidemic, because for anyone to be safe, everyone must be able to access medical services. Furthermore, the importance of other services being free and universal has been highlighted: food supplies, care for the elderly, school meals and housing. How can police be expected to enforce curfews when thousands of people are living on the streets in the world’s big cities?
The idea of patents on drugs, in other words of so called “intellectual property”, is blown out of the water by this crisis. There is almost universal acceptance, without even any discussion, that as soon as a vaccine and a drug that can control this virus is discovered, it should be made available to everyone free of charge. This is not even a “charitable” consideration, a gesture of kindness to those who are suffering. It is simply a practical step to stop the disease spreading.
This crisis has already created unofficial community responses: local organisations to ensure that the most vulnerable are looked after. In Spain there were strikes where workers protested against being forced to work in unsafe conditions. In Italy there were strikes resulting in workers winning the right to be sent home on full pay.
The situation cries out for more government investment. It is patently clear that never again should pompous neo-liberal politicians be allowed to strip down medical services so that, even before a crisis like this, there were dire shortages of staff and equipment.
This epidemic poses point-blank the need for more health services, free at the point of use; more government sponsored research into public health and epidemiology. Governments need to be ready to build specialist hospitals for civil emergencies within a few days: something that most modern armies are able to do. If it can be done for war, it can be done for a pandemic.
Hundreds of thousands of ventilators need to be built within the next few weeks. This requires centralised planning of engineering skills and equipment. Medication and testing needs to be free. All eligibility checks and charging in the health service must be ended. All staff working in health services, including jobs which have been outsourced, need to be paid a living wage now. Jobs are vanishing. It has become clear that governments must take responsibility for supporting all those left without income. There needs to be paid sick leave and paid isolation leave for everyone.
We don’t know how long this virus will wreak havoc on humanity. We do know that the countries with least investment in medical services will suffer the worst and that their suffering will be a source of continual threat to the rest of humanity.
Both Trump and Johnson have been woefully idiotic with their zigzagging between bravado and panic measures. Conte in Italy underplayed the crisis to start with, leading to catastrophe and the need for far more drastic measures.
All economies will need careful management as jobs are lost, retail collapses, and more people need benefits. Manufacturing has to be directed to meet emergency needs. The free market, so lauded by those currently in power, is incapable of coping with this situation.
Humanity has the technology to understand, track, isolate and prevent viruses like this from spreading. But this technology cannot be fully utilised whilst it is in the hands of companies seeking to profit from it. Most of it concerns information, nucleic acid sequences. Information technology is a notoriously difficult area for maintaining high rates of profit for any length of time. Even vaccination is a form of information technology because nucleic acid sequences are information.
This is a global political situation which requires collective and democratic solutions. Even in China, where the virus first began spreading, and where there are still powerful elements of state control within the economy, the bureaucracy, at the beginning in December 2019, were far too defensive and conservative when first informed of the risk of a repeat of the SARS epidemic of 2003. Their response was to shoot the messenger and to keep the news hushed up… because it might create social instability.
There has been some discussion in the western media about cultural differences and how both the government and the people in China are accepting of very strict controls, making lockdown easier. Such talk is partly an attempt to excuse western capitalist politicians for their incompetence in the face of this crisis.
Boris Johnson revealed his ignorance with his talk of “herd immunity”. At the time of writing no-one knows how long immunity to this virus may last. There is insufficient evidence as to whether, once you have had it, you can catch it again.
In the history of modern medicine, most herd immunity has been achieved through the availability of vaccines. Johnson, with his background as an advocate of neo-liberal free markets and a very limited grasp of science, saw it as letting events take their “natural course” without interference from “heavy-handed and bureaucratic” government. In so far as he was prepared to develop a “policy”, his outlook borrowed ideas from Nazi eugenics.
Within a few days of announcing this “strategy”, he switched in panic. How would he have ever been able to justify a policy that deliberately allowed 60% of the population to catch this disease, with all the pressure on medical services and death this would entail?
Johnson was trying to portray himself as “wartime prime minister” with a carefully worked out plan. Yet an article which appeared in the Financial Times Online on 19th March gave the game away as to the real motives for such lack of policy, such reluctance to get a grip:
“Given the capital’s status as a major global financial hub, Mr Johnson, and Rishi Sunak, chancellor, were determined not to further alarm the markets by putting the city into lockdown.”
Johnson’s approach was not driven by science at all. It was driven by financial markets!
But the story gets even worse. In a democracy, the media are supposed to scrutinise and challenge the government. Yet when Johnson changed his mind, most of the media, including the BBC, reported that it was because “the science had shifted”, “new information had emerged”. Actually scientists had been warning all along that Johnson’s approach was wrong.
Even in regard to China, Western media reports about the “advantages” of “strong government” and the “one-party state” are not the whole story. Our sources in the Wuhan area report that the state was irrelevant in the earliest stages of the response. The people initiated the shutdown themselves out of fear. They acted independently of the bureaucracy, reflecting widespread understanding of the need for emergency measures and a mistrust of the bureaucracy.
This initiative from below played an important part in jolting the bureaucrats out of their denial. They were slow to start, but once they grasped the need for action they threw everything at it. They turned factories around to produce emergency equipment, putting the country on a war footing. They poured in resources. The people supported and respected this. So it is possible, at least in the first part of China’s recovery from this, that the bureaucracy will come out stronger. Nevertheless, the lessons of community improvisation will not be lost. This portends what is brewing in China, the prospect of a new political movement from below.
The world is a very different place from what it was just a few weeks ago. It is very hard to imagine how the mass of the population can be duped or persuaded that everything should revert back to “free markets” once this is over.
Amongst millions of workers there are layoffs, unemployment and isolation, while with others there is working from home. All this poses progressive questions about the role of technology and in future work and the total amount of work needed within society.
Sectors of the workforce hitherto treated as the skivvies of the consumer society, such as cleaners, carers and the workers in food production and distribution, are now suddenly considered essential workers with status alongside emergency services. This will boost their confidence in organising within trades unions to defend their wages, safety and other rights.
One of the consequences of the second world war was a massive change in political consciousness of the mass of the population. In Britain it became clear that society can work collectively, and that much more can be achieved when it does. This led to the Attlee landslide in the 1945 general election. One of the consequences of hyper-inflation in 1923, in the aftermath of World War 1, was the biggest revolutionary movement that Germany has ever seen.
Young people are already aware of the need for drastic and internationalist solutions if the planet is to be saved. We could see some very big changes in politics.
The Johnsons and Trumps can only envisage another capitalist consumer boom when this is over, with its inequality, wastage and carbon emissions, not to mention the consequent inevitability of another recession. Far better would be socialist economic development: a global project to create free, universal health care, sanitation, fresh water supplies, housing and education, together with the zero-carbon food, energy and transport vital now to save the planet. This would create hundreds of millions of socially useful skilled jobs paving the way to a world with speedy access to vaccines, enough doctors, nurses and medical equipment.