John Rees provides an overview of a landscape darkened by the establishments’ failure to deal with the coronavirus pandemic
How real is the crisis?
This might seem an extraordinary question to ask when, as I write, over 1.7 million people have contracted coronavirus and 110,000 people have died around the globe. But there have been two groups in the UK who have contested the severity of this epidemic.
The first is some of the government advisors and government ministers who in the early stages of the crisis denied that it would be of any greater significance than the annual cases of influenza. The second are a small group of commentators and their followers who oppose the lockdown that the government belatedly imposed when its original underestimate of the crisis had to be abandoned. The argument from this direction is also that the pandemic is overstated, that its effects will be no worse than the annual outbreak of influenza.
So what’s the truth of this? Well, it is true that flu is still a big killer. The World Health Organisation figures show that between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths globally each year are associated with seasonal influenza. Public Health England estimates show that yearly flu deaths in the UK vary considerably. In recent years the highest figure, 28,330, came in 2014/15. The lowest,1,692, in 2018/19. The average is 17,000.
So, while the current deaths from coronavirus globally are less than those from flu so far, in the UK the deaths from coronavirus, currently at over 10,000 hospital deaths and a likely 16,000 total deaths, have hugely exceeded the lower figure for flu deaths, will exceed the average, and may well exceed the highest figures.
But still, haven’t the corona-deniers got a point? Isn’t the crisis overstated when we look at the deaths from flu? The answer is no. Here’s why:
1The comparative timescales aren’t like for like.
The death figures for flu are annual figures, the statistics for coronavirus are for a few months. The graphs for the coronavirus global infection rate and the global death rate are still rising exponentially. By the end of the year the number of dead is likely to exceed the influenza figures.
2Influenza is an established global virus, coronavirus isn’t...yet.
Coronavirus is at the moment a first world problem with the most deaths occurring in relatively wealthy industrialised economies. But it won’t stay that way. Once it arrives in the poorer, less developed countries of the global south it will kill more, and proportionally more, as influenza does in these countries. Even the International Monetary Fund realises ‘With weak health systems to begin with, many face the dreadful challenge of fighting the virus in densely populated cities and poverty-stricken slums, where social distancing is hardly an option’. And from the less developed countries, it may well re-enter those countries that had hoped they had passed the peak of infection, possibly in a new mutation.
3Coronavirus is far more infectious than flu.
For every one person that catches the flu from someone who has it, three people are likely to catch coronavirus from someone already infected.
4There is a vaccine for flu, there isn’t for coronavirus.
And it looks like being a year or longer before there is one. That’s a long time for a highly infectious virus to spread unchecked. And in that time new strains of coronavirus may have developed.
5Deterioration and death rates are different.
Coronavirus produces sudden deterioration in some patients placing a higher level of demand on hospital care. In the US flu requires hospitalisation in 1-2 percent of cases. With coronavirus 15 percent of cases require oxygen, and 5 percent require ventilation. Death rates are very different as well. The US annual flu infections are between 9 and 45 million. The number of flu deaths is between 12,000 and 61,000. Currently, the US has around 450,000 coronavirus cases, but nearly 17,000 coronavirus deaths. So while the number of cases is nowhere near flu levels the number of deaths has, within a few weeks, exceeded the lower flu levels and is rising rapidly. Globally, the WHO estimates that the death rate for flu is less than 0.1 percent while coronavirus rates are between 3 and 4 percent.
All this matters because the government hasn’t finished with a policy that regards the mass deaths of working people as an acceptable price to pay for ‘keeping the economy going’. The Tories are already planning how quickly the workforce can be sent back to crammed offices and workplaces on overcrowded trains, tubes and buses. They are seriously discussing removing health care from coronavirus victims who are over 70 and infirm.
So arguments from the corona-deniers that minimise the risks just play into the Tories hands. And those arguments might be worth more if their predictions had not already been proven false. But first these advocates of reducing social distancing measures argued that coronavirus would effect Italy hardest because of its ageing population. But then the virus hit Spain and the UK harder still. So the argument moved on to suggest that Sweden was doing fine with no lockdown. Then deaths in Sweden rocketed past comparable Scandinavian states to become, per head, one of the most serious in Europe.
This is not a serious response, either from the government or, less importantly, a fringe of coronavirus sceptics, to the most serious global health crisis we have faced in 100 years.
The politics of the immediate crisis
That the British government and its advisors failed in the early days of this crisis is now beyond all reasonable doubt. The UK government’s tragically slow response is well documented. They were slow to recognise the threat of coronavirus when it emerged in China at the end of last year, denied it would pose a serious threat in this country, and were overconfident about the health system’s ability to deal with the consequences of the spread of the virus.
Once the spread of the virus in the UK became undeniable that the government adopted the now-infamous herd immunity theory. It only began a serious lockdown because individuals, workplaces, schools, unions and civic bodies (like the football league) forced its hand. It started, then stopped, any wide-scale testing and has still not begun to do it yet despite repeated promises that it would. Similarly, it has left frontline staff struggling to find personal protective equipment (PPE), a deadly lack still only being dealt with by private provision in many cases. The lack of NHS capacity and of vital equipment, like ventilators, has only been partially remedied.
The result is that the death rate in the UK is one of the worst in Europe. Although even a full and accurate count of those who have died is impossible because the daily total released by the government is delayed by the requirement, randomly introduced by the government three weeks into the crisis, that relatives need to be informed before a death can be counted and by the fact that deaths outside hospital, which are around 40 percent of deaths, are not included in the day by day figures (see graph 1).
The truth is that although the public backlash against the herd immunity policy forced the government to withdraw the rhetoric, they have only partially and inconsistently halted the practice. At first, we had herd immunity as declared strategy, now we have it as undeclared practice. Hundreds of people are dying each day, many of whom would have survived if this government had instituted an earlier lockdown, if that lockdown had been more effective, if systematic testing and tracing were in place, and if an effective government mobilisation of production was manufacturing the equipment that front line staff require.
Faced with failure by Johnson’s regime, what of the labour movement and the opposition? With parliament not sitting for the entirety of the peak of the crisis and with the lockdown effectively preventing political meetings, protests, or demonstrations the response of the labour movement is absolutely critical.
Let’s begin with the Labour Party. Unfortunately, consumed by the final stages of the contest to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the Labour Party has done little to effectively challenge the government. In his first week as leader, Sir Keir Starmer has offered the thought that he will only ‘constructively’ criticise the government. But who would do anything else? Who offers unconstructive criticism? For a mind as famously forensic as Sir Keir’s this is a strange use of language. Unless it really means that in the name of national unity he will not criticise the government very effectively. That is certainly what it looks like.
Some have expressed the view that we should ‘get through the crisis and then there will be a public inquiry’. To say that this shows a lack of urgency would be an understatement. To watch while the government callously presided over the exponentially rising death rate and intone half-hearted phrases about ‘constructive criticism’ and public inquiries when it is all over is to be complicit.
Waiting means more people lose their lives. Speaking up now means saving lives. It’s that simple.
When the National Education Union spoke out and became central to forcing the Tories to close schools, while the government was still publicly defending the theory of herd immunity which meant that this was something it absolutely did not want to do, that action saved lives.
When postal workers have taken action to demand personal protective equipment it saves lives – theirs and the lives of members of the public. If more bus workers had taken action perhaps we wouldn’t be looking at 10 dead drivers in London alone.
What we require from the unions as well as the Labour Party is more, not less, political opposition now. While lives can still be saved.
The unions’ meetings with government and their public statements have often been about the economic aspects of the crisis: pay during the lockdown and the threat to jobs. These are vital issues, and I discuss them below. Indeed, there can be few more important issues than working people’s livelihood. But there is one more important issue. Their lives.
The immediate issue in this crisis is whether we are going to take action that will save lives. For one thing is sure: where there is no life, there is no livelihood to discuss. No life and there’s no job, no wages, no house, no food bills to discuss.
Those losing their lives most rapidly in this crisis are working people, and the poorer you are the more likely to lose your life. Black and Asian people are disproportionately victims. The old and sick are most at risk.
The question before the labour movement is this: are we forcing the government to act or are we letting the working-class people die in a murderous Tory-led strategy of herd immunity? Narrow economism is not what is needed here.
The frontline in this war for life is maintaining an effective lockdown, implementation of mass testing and tracing, and the provision of PPE and other equipment. That’s where the labour movement should focus its efforts as well as on protecting the economic interests of workers.
The Thursday night clap for carers shows the public support is there. The polls showing that two thirds think the government is acting too slowly shows that the Tories are vulnerable to criticism. Now is the time to step up the fight for our lives.
How has coronavirus affected the balance of class forces?
A crisis on this scale was always bound to inaugurate a society-wide debate about economic, social and political priorities. This debate will be long-running, stretching beyond the immediate crisis and into a whole era defined by the recession that the spread of coronavirus has caused. Let’s briefly examine the economic, political and ideological aspects of this emerging situation.
1The economic crisis:
There is no doubt that the economic crisis engulfing us is epoch-defining in its severity. As Nouriel Roubini wrote in the Guardian:
‘The shock to the global economy from Covid-19 has been faster and more severe than the 2008 global financial crisis and even the Great Depression. In those two previous episodes, stock markets collapsed by 50% or more, credit markets froze up, massive bankruptcies followed, unemployment rates soared above 10% and GDP contracted at an annualised rate of 10% or more. But all of this took around three years to play out. In the current crisis, similarly dire macroeconomic and financial outcomes have materialised in three weeks.’
And he concluded:
‘The contraction that is now under way looks to be neither V- nor U- nor L-shaped (a sharp downturn followed by stagnation). Rather, it looks like an I: a vertical line representing financial markets and the real economy plummeting.’
The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, agrees: ‘We anticipate the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression’. Graph 2 shows this process unfolding.
But long before the coronavirus crisis, the neoliberal economic model was in trouble. Even for the capitalist class it was clear that hyper-globalisation, massive social inequality, and an unstable free market were not the optimum capitalist operating model. Even in relentlessly pro-business circles there was some sympathy for increased regulation, properly funded infrastructure, and stabilised housing and labour markets.
This should surprise no one. Sensible capitalists have never been in favour of a lawless Wild West capitalism. They have always favoured a capitalist state that can regulate and stabilise the market and provide calm conditions for capital accumulation, even while the anarchic functioning of the markets and the internationally competitive state system undermine such a project.
Nor is this new. When the private East India Company, established at the very dawn of modern capitalism in the 17th century, got into trouble it was nationalised. Once profitable again it was quickly privatised. The capitalist state has always acted to prop up the system, or parts of the system, when the functioning of the very same system brings it to the point of collapse. War and economic depression are usual conditions that provoke state intervention on this kind of scale, but it always operates at some level in the system.
Socialists have always recognised that state ownership alone is not a socialist measure. As Fredrick Engels noted, if it were true that state ownership and socialism were the same then the regimental tailors in the army and the Royal porcelain manufacturers would be socialist institutions.
So what matters is not just whether there is state intervention and regulation but in whose interest this operates? Ultimately it is a question of who controls the state.
In this crisis, according to Nouriel Roubini, governments ‘have already done in less than a month what took them three years to do after the financial crisis’. The massive Tory intervention in the economy certainly runs counter to the received wisdom of neoliberalism, and that is a rupture that can be exploited by the labour movement. But only if it is clear that we don’t want to swap exploitation under the neoliberal model of capitalism for exploitation under a more state-regulated capitalism.
This requires a more combative stance from the unions and the labour movement.
2The political crisis:
The British establishment has already been battered by the divisive nature of Brexit and the politically polarising effect of Corbynism, especially the dissolvent effect of both phenomena on the political centre. The coronavirus crisis threatens further destruction of the coherence of the UK ruling class and its political system.
The Tories didn’t want the coronavirus crisis, they don’t want state intervention in the economy, and they don’t want the lockdown. They’ve been forced into all this. The government and the right-wing commentators want all this over as quickly as possible, as the BBC are now beginning to reflect. They want people back at work and they are prepared to accept the additional deaths that this would cause as ‘collateral damage’.
To be caught in the middle of a global health emergency so great that you have to reverse an ideological stance that has been core to your political identity for two generations is not a happy place for the Tories to inhabit. Moreover, and despite calls for national unity, the public is increasingly sceptical about the government.
The millions of people who have come out on Thursday nights to applaud the NHS represent probably the largest popular participation in any political event since the protests against the Iraq war. That mobilisation is so powerful that it forced the establishment to rush to get to the head of it, endorsing and attempting to co-opt it. That is likely to be only very partially successful. Many, probably most, of those millions who join in know that it is the Tories persistent underfunding and privatisation of the NHS are what left it so weakened when it had to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
However misguided it may be to wait until this crisis over before there is a political reckoning with the Tories, there surely will be such a reckoning and it is hard to see how the Tories will emerge from that undamaged.
But how damaged the Tories are, and whether they are fatally damaged, will depend on how well the Labour Party and the labour movement now focuses anger at the government. Here the picture is not hopeful.
Sir Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet appointments indicate a resurgent right uninterested in continuing the policies of Corbynism for any other reason than quieting the left, and not very interested in that.
Sir Keir’s stance is one of national unity, criticising the Tories only on details and not very powerfully on those. Even if the immediate crisis passes and Sir Keir feels able to be bolder it’s unlikely that a leadership with Liz Kendall, Rachel Reeves, Stephen Kinnock, Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips involved will ever managed to pose a systemic alternative to the Tories.
At best they will go along with a new corporatism that seeks to include the Labour leadership and the trade union bureaucracy in a national compact to manage the crisis.
This will not serve the purposes of working people facing a gigantic domestic and international crisis for the second time in just over a decade, indeed when their wages have barely recovered from the banking crisis.
It follows that to meet this new crisis we will need a renewal of all the popular organisations of the working class. The unions need a mass recruitment campaign with free membership for 6 months. The Peoples’ Assembly and NHS campaigns need to expand their operations.
The end of neoliberalism is happening before our eyes. The inability of the free market to deal with this crisis has not only been pointed out by the left but admitted by the right, and admitted in practice at that. The state-driven economic rescue package has happened in a fraction of the time that a fraction of the resources were mobilised after the banking crash a decade ago. Perhaps the signal moment in all this was Boris Johnson’s Downing Street broadcast in which he insisted, in direct contradiction of Margaret Thatcher’s nostrum that ‘there is no such thing as society’, that there was indeed such a thing as society. He could hardly do less while praising 20,000 staff who had returned to the NHS and 750,000 ordinary people who have volunteered for the NHS.
But what will be the ideological terrain that replaces neoliberalism? For the Tories there is another model available of course: one nation Toryism. And Boris Johnson, when he isn’t busy abusing minorities, kicking one nation Tories out of the Tory party, and promising to be the best friend of bankers, has been fond of deploying this kind of rhetoric. Yes, Johnson is self-contradicting and inconsistent but this approach is part of his political make-up. The election result reinforced this, giving at least some Tories the sense that they had to pay attention to a working-class audience in the north that helped give them a landslide. Sajid Javid was sacked as Chancellor for being too attached to the spending rules that governed previous Tory administrations even before the coronavirus crisis hit.
But can the Tories really revive one nation Conservatism as anything other than thin wartime-lite phraseology? That’s unlikely. The original one nation Conservatism was born of the long postwar boom and the welfare state consensus. It arose because the war economy and the landslide Labour victory in 1945 created a state control of the economy, a high level of nationalisation, and a popular and elite commitment to the welfare state that even the coronavirus crisis is unlikely to reproduce. Most important of all the economic foundations of one nation Toryism was the unprecedented expansion of capitalism after the Second World War, the longest sustained period of growth in the history of capitalism.
The ongoing economic crisis produced by the coronavirus pandemic, coming on top of the hugely long-lasting effects of the banking crash, will ensure that the economic context could not be more different. When the immediate crisis subsides there will be row-back. The ‘praise and no pay’ approach to key workers will not alter. The money pumped into the system will not reach those who need it. We have already seen Tesco use government bailout money to pay their shareholders dividends rather than boost the miserable pay of their employees. Expect more of this, although better disguised. Money pumped into the economy can certainly keep firms in business without it ever-increasing pay or saving jobs.
So the most likely outcome is more of the ‘banker’s Keynesianism’ that we saw a decade ago, supplemented by actual state control of firms ‘too big to fail’. Thus a rebirth of a greater degree of state capitalism, or state corporatism, is likely.
This is being celebrated in some sections of the left as the adoption by the Tories of Corbynite economics, a realisation that unions are essential, and so on. The danger is that the new corporatism will involve the co-option of Labourism. Sir Keir Starmer’s willingness to consider a national government, the Tories' inclusion of Starmer in coronavirus briefings (denied to Jeremy Corbyn), the national negotiations with the unions, are all early indicators of where this might go.
A union movement shrunken in size, with limited penetration of some new and younger sections of the workforce, and with very little rank and file organisation is not in a good place to resist the gravitational pull of the ‘we are all in it together’ ideology.
To resist this disastrous orientation which can only excuse the Tories’ deadly failures today and leave working people exposed to the economic consequences of the crisis as it unfolds tomorrow requires a sharp reorientation.
Possibilities for action
It’s certainly the case that the short term ideological disorientation of the Tories provides opportunities for the left. But it is not automatic that ‘things will never be the same again’. That depends on the ideas advocated by the left and the actions the labour movement takes.
One thing is for sure, the ‘pull together to get us through the crisis and afterwards there’ll be reckoning’ approach is a recipe for disaster. Firstly and most importantly it leaves working people to die at the hands of an incompetent and ideologically blinkered government when serious opposition now could force them to take action that would save lives. It’s unacceptable to make political capital of this later when action now is what is required.
The Labour and the trade union leadership need to start ripping into the Tories in much more forthright terms. The failure over testing, PPE, and ventilators is huge. The plans for an early end to the lockdown is a death sentence for some workers, as is the failure to stop all non-essential work now.
If bus drivers or postal workers, or anyone else, isn’t given PPE, then strike action should be the immediate consequence. This kind of political and industrial opposition is all the more vital when Parliament is suspended. The balance of power has shifted in the direction of workers, both ideologically and in workplace relations, as a result of this crisis. The whole labour movement needs to use it to take as much control of the situation as it can.
And for this reason, we need to be vigilant about defending civil liberties. Of course social distancing is essential but the police powers that have been granted in the Coronavirus Act are draconian and, if used, would be authoritarian. Labour insisted rightly that they be renewed every three months and they should be repealed as soon as possible. In the meantime, the useless and counterproductive moves by the police to close parks or search shopping bags or to harass people on the street should be strenuously resisted.
Government reports show that they had so little knowledge of ordinary people that they thought they wouldn’t observe social distancing but are now astounded that it has been observed with greater rigour than they imagined. Which means that there are no grounds for heavy-handed policing and that government complaints about the behaviour of ordinary people are the most reprehensible kind of victim-blaming for the purposes of covering up government failure.
The left has adapted well to the online necessities of the new situation. But real life politics has not disappeared and the left must apply itself to this fact. Workplace union activity cannot be stopped nor suspended. It is now crucial. Reporting it, organising solidarity with it, is key. Public displays of support for workers, like the Thursday night claps need to be sustained, campaigns over civil liberties (like keeping the parks open) require publicity and support.
The Tories have failed the greatest test of the postwar era. The Labour leadership will not hold them properly to account. That is now the task of the left and the labour movement. Lives depend on it.
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John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.