Responses to the Covid-19 crisis that jeopardise the working class have to be rejected, asserts Shabbir Lakha
Over 60 protests are planned to take place around the country on Saturday calling for an end to the lockdown. They follow similar protests that are taking place in the US and across Europe, and are being instigated by the alt-right. In the UK, the dubious “Freedom Movement” seems to have links with Britain First and Jayda Fransen.
It’s not surprising that trust in the government is at an all time low and people are questioning what’s actually true and whose interests the government is acting in. But far right groups are peddling conspiracy theories to manipulate legitimate anger with those in power in the opposite direction of what the government is actually guilty of – and it’s helping the government do what they actually want to do, lift the lockdown.
The truth is that there is a conspiracy going on – but it isn’t about the existence or seriousness of coronavirus. The conspiracy is that the government needs to get us all back to work in order to get back to making profits – it’s this that drives their every decision and it’s through this prism that we should understand the lies we are being told.
How bad really is the coronavirus?
At the time of writing, there are just over 4.5 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus globally and around 307,000 deaths as a result. This represents a mortality rate of 6.8%. With the exception of a handful of countries, namely Germany and South Korea, the level of testing for the virus has remained very low – here the government still hasn’t met its promise of 100,000 tests a day and a recent ONS survey showed that around 148,000 people in England alone had been infected with the virus between 27 April and 10 May while the official figure for the whole UK for the same period is just over 60,000. This means both the numbers of cases and numbers of deaths attributed to the virus, while likely to amount to a lower mortality rate, are massively underestimated.
A study by the Financial Times of 14 countries suggests the real death toll is 60% higher than reported figures. The latest data from the Office of National Statistics shows that the death toll in England and Wales explicitly linked to the coronavirus was over 33,000 on the 1st of May (this is roughly the UK-wide official death toll now, two weeks later). But it also shows that compared to a five year average, the UK had 41,627 excess deaths up to 1st May. Adding in deaths in Scotland, modelling puts “a cautious estimate” of the UK’s excess deaths to date at 60,400.
Measuring excess deaths is important for two main reasons. The first is that the official death toll is mainly reliant on data from hospitals and now care homes (though not accurately), but not those who have died in their homes nor those who have not been confirmed to have symptoms prior to death. It also doesn’t include deaths from people who have died from chronic illnesses and other causes but who have not had access to lifesaving treatments and surgeries because the NHS has been overstretched by the pandemic; these are direct results of the pandemic and should be included in figures.
The second is that the excess deaths lay bare the myth that the coronavirus is no worse than ordinary flu and the only deaths are among people who would likely have died anyway. While a large proportion of deaths caused by the coronavirus have been among the elderly, the number of deaths we would have expected even from their age groups had there not been a pandemic is encapsulated in the 5 year average, so the excess deaths still represents a huge number of people who would have otherwise been living today.
The Lancet has also produced a detailed study pulling together data on people in vulnerable categories and the likelihood of them dying from contracting the disease, and have concluded an estimated 587,982 excess deaths over the course of a year if 80% of the population were infected, there was no government mitigation and the rate of reproduction of the virus was 3 – just above what it was before the lockdown began, and lower than the 4.6 it reached in some parts of Europe prior to lockdowns.
Whose interests is the government acting in?
Capitalism depends on the mass of people to work in order to keep churning a profit for those at the top of society. Maintaining this system is the primary remit of the government and that means keeping you working.
During the course of this pandemic, the global economy has taken a massive hit and the Bank of England is now saying this is the biggest collapse in 300 years. 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the crisis began and in India over 120 million people have lost their jobs. This graphic shows the scale of the unemployment in the US:
These are the US unemployment claims in their historical context pic.twitter.com/NJAqPl9BVg— How Things Work (@ThingsWork) April 3, 2020
Our government is now going to great lengths to convince us that the economy suffering is as bad as people dying from the virus, that it’s bad for us and not them and the interests they’re working to protect. This is one of the key arguments that the anti-lockdown protesters are now replicating, and they’re doing the government’s work for it.
Busting the myths
Understanding that this is the primary driver of the government’s rationale and behaviour cuts through the conspiracies that have been circulating. There’s no reason for the government or any elite body to artificially create a deadly global virus or to force us into lockdown to strip away our freedom – because they need us to keep making profit for them. The virus itself is the product of wilfully negligent agribusiness practices in the pursuit of short term profits which have created the conditions for new viruses to develop and spread.
Similarly, big pharma standing to make a huge profit from a vaccine is an indictment of a system which profits from our health, it’s not evidence of a conspiracy. In fact, pharmaceutical companies throwing away the research into the SARS vaccine instead of developing it further once it stopped being profitable, shows the anarchic nature and short-term profit motive ingrained in capitalism.
The government doesn’t need to mind control us into working because the need to survive under capitalism by working is force enough, and a system which needs people to work in order to profit will do anything to get us back to being healthy and alive to do just that.
Early on in the outbreak, a clip went viral of a Ted Talk by Bill Gates in 2015 discussing the prospect of a global pandemic. He’s neither prophetic nor ‘in on it’, he was looking at the failures of the response to Ebola and said an airborne virus which is very possible given the mutating nature of viruses would be catastrophically worse because of the lack of investment in healthcare.
In fact, here in Britain, the government conducted an epidemic drill, Exercise Cygnus, in 2016 which came to the same conclusion and made recommendations on the equipment stocking and healthcare investment needed but the then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, deliberately ignored the advice to save a little bit of money.
In the same Bill Gates video, he talks about the trillions the economy would lose if this happened – this is their main concern. It’s why our government was extremely reluctant to go into lockdown and downplayed the seriousness of the virus for weeks before being forced into it by public pressure. Tens of thousands of lives would have been saved if they took these measures earlier.
And it’s why they’re trying to force us out of the lockdown now before it’s safe.
Sweden is being touted as proof that lockdown was not necessary, but the reality is that Sweden has had a partial lockdown, but its relatively relaxed rules meant that it recorded its worst weekly death toll of the century last month. South Korea was able to avoid formally going into lockdown because of an expansive testing-tracing-isolating programme and the population in effect self-imposing lockdown measures. But even then, as soon as measures were downgraded earlier this week, a nightclub party caused an immediate spike in cases which the government is now trying to get under control.
And in the week since Boris Johnson’s announcement scaling back the lockdown, there has already been an immediate increase in the rate of reproduction of the virus. They have flat-out lied about workplaces being safe, and the fact that hundreds of children have now contracted a rare Kawasaki-like disease linked to Covid-19 has not deterred them from attacking teachers and their unions for not wanting to reopen schools, just so they can get parents back into work.
The government’s approach to the lockdown and the lifting of the lockdown shows with crystal clarity what its priorities are. The people who have had to keep working during the lockdown to keep society functioning are almost entirely working class people – from the NHS to care homes to transport to schools looking after the children of key workers.
The rules of the lockdown were enforced on working people while businesses were politely encouraged to close if they were not essential or to let people work from home if they can. The financial support has been given to businesses who have been given grants and tax cuts and asked nicely to not fire their workers but face no repercussions if they do fire their workers or use furlough money to pay their multimillionaire CEOs. Meanwhile, statutory sick pay and Universal Credit which millions of people have had to sign up for went up by £1.70 a week to a grand total of £95 a week, while rents and bills have remained in full effect.
Their only concern is their profits, not our lives. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths is acceptable collateral damage for them.
We should have had a complete reorganising of society to ensure the safety of people and production for need not profit. The wartime economy in the 40s saw a massive shift in the way the economy was organised and it could very well have been done now – the difference is that then it was a shift into munitions-production which was needed to bail out capitalism from the Depression, whereas now it would require a stripping down of a highly financialised and service-reliant economy which is why it hasn’t been an option for those in charge.
An editorial in the Financial Times exposed that one thing the ruling class is terrified of is working people better understanding their power and advancing our position in society the way labour relations were transformed following the Black Death.
This crisis has shown us that the bulk of jobs we are made to do aren’t actually socially beneficial and a society organised by the people that would have prioritised protecting every life and producing for need is not only possible but urgently necessary. This crisis has shown us who holds the real power to keep society functioning – it’s us. We have to work collectively now to resist the lifting of the lockdown – not be manipulated by the far right into doing the government’s job for them by giving them the cover to end it – and to force the government to protect us not profit.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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