Shabbir Lakha reflects on a tumultuous year and what we must remember for the fight ahead
To describe 2020 as turbulent would be a euphemism. The number of times the word “unprecedented” was used this year was perhaps only outflanked by the number of dollars Jeff Bezos added to his net worth...every minute ($9 million per minute on 20 July 2020 when he broke the record for being greedy scum).
But despite the unique circumstances we’ve faced, it’s probably more accurate to say that 2020 has been the year that the mask fell off. This year we’ve seen the real, ugly face of the system that governs us with 4K clarity.
The capitalist pandemic
Years of warnings of the distinct possibility of a viral pandemic, especially since the Ebola outbreak in 2014, were ignored by world leaders. The mass industrial farming practices of global agribusiness which provide the ideal conditions for new viruses to develop and transfer to humans continued without hesitation, because, as 2020 has repeatedly shown us, profit comes first.
And so in 2020, the fruits of capitalist logic emerged in the form of Covid-19. We have now had over 83 million confirmed cases and over 1.8 million deaths globally as a result of Covid.
The UK government downplayed the virus as it spread across the planet with speed, insisting that all we had to do was wash our hands to the ‘happy birthday’ song. That advice aged as well as Boris Johnson’s “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain” tweet.
Before long, infection rates were skyrocketing, but still the government continued to ignore the advice from scientists. That is, until they believed it was no longer politically defensible – a theme that would become the primary consideration for their entire strategy throughout the year.
Unlike countries like New Zealand which acted quickly, locked down effectively and implemented a properly functioning test and trace system which then allowed them to open up again without costing lives – the Tories sought to minimise disruption to profits as the number one priority. They opened up in a rush, telling us that workplaces were “Covid-secure”, schools and universities were safe and that we should “Eat out to help out”, then acted surprised when infections spiked.
As a result, Britain today has both the worst Covid death toll in Europe and the worst economic slump in the G7.
The £12bn the government spent on a test and trace system that didn’t work turned out to be the biggest waste of money since Jeremy Hunt’s taxpayer-funded £44,000 toilet. They stopped trying to hide their corruption and openly handed out millions and millions worth of contracts to their mates.
But another recurring theme was the government being pushed back by public pressure. The closing of schools, the introduction of the furlough and self-employed support, the eviction ban, free school meals, a-level exam results and more, all forced into effect by ordinary people.
The flipside to the rottenness of the system in full display was the pervasiveness of grassroots solidarity everywhere you looked. From mutual aid groups set up in practically every neighbourhood to the Thursday night claps of appreciation for NHS and essential workers, we’ve seen a growing level of class solidarity and self-organisation.
It went further still into workplace organisation. Tens of thousands of people have joined trade unions and ballots, strikes and protests have sprung up across the country over health and safety, pay, conditions and redundancies.
The bankruptcy of Labour
While some working people have been taking the fight to the government, the official parliamentary opposition has done anything but. Keir Starmer’s “new leadership” has at almost every juncture sided with the government. The few times it has criticised the government, it has been for example to insist that schools reopen in September “no ifs, no buts”, or to say that the Overseas Operations Bill which protects war criminals doesn’t go far enough.
Instead, Starmer has focused his energy, during a pandemic that the government is so obviously failing to deal with, to wage war on the left. He sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet at the first opportunity, suspended Corbyn with no basis and then overruled the NEC to withdraw his whip when he was readmitted to the party. He’s subsequently cracked down on anyone daring to show support for Corbyn or Palestine and members have been suspended in droves.
No justice, no peace
Meanwhile, despite the pandemic, young people took to the streets against another virus: racism. The brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, caught on camera, sparked what has become the biggest protest movement in US history and a global movement against racism and police violence.
Protests swelled in every state in the US, the Minneapolis police station was burned to the ground, and protesters stood their ground when Trump sent in Federal Troops to attack them. In Seattle and Portland, protesters barricaded areas in the city centres and declared ‘autonomous zones’ for weeks.
The protests have seen a vastly higher proportion of white people compared to the civil rights struggle or even Black Lives Matter 6 years ago. There’s also been stronger class solidarity, from bus drivers refusing to let police transport arrested protesters, to nurses treating protesters after ending their hospital shifts, to organisers like Chris Smalls, who was fired from Amazon for raising health concerns, connecting Black Lives Matter with taking on Jeff Bezos.
The impact has been massive. In Britain, Black Lives Matter protests took place in over 200 towns and cities, and the London ones mobilised over 100,000 people. In Bristol, protesters made history when they pulled down the statue of Edward Colston.
The movement also in part helped to spur the #EndSars mass mobilisations in Nigeria which took a stand against police violence and the government.
Protests weren’t the only things raging in the US, the biggest wildfires in the country’s history ripped through the West Coast. Residents in California, Oregon and Washington were treated to post-apocalyptic orange skies and death by smoke inhalation.
And it wasn’t just the US. We started 2020 with a huge section of Australia on fire, and over the course of the year the Amazon rainforest faced the worst fires in a decade. At the same time, the US had an extraordinary number of hurricanes this year and freak weather incidents globally were up.
2020 has shown us several things in relation to climate change:
1Time is running out. Extreme weather events and its effects are only going to get worse than they already were this year. It should put the hollow promises from our governments of cutting carbon emissions by 2050 into perspective.
2Our governments won’t do better because they remain committed to protecting profits at all costs. Short-term profits trumped thousands of immediate and avoidable deaths this year, they will continue to trump the dangers of future deaths from climate breakdown especially when the first and hardest hit are those in the Global South.
3A different kind of society is imminently possible. The lockdowns had a drastic effect on air pollution the world over. The landmark case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah which found a direct contribution from air pollution to her death is an example of the immediate lives that can be saved if we don’t return to pre-Covid ‘normal’ – and the dangers ahead if we do.
The overarching takeaway from these points is that we need fundamental change to protect ourselves. Our health, economic wellbeing and the climate crisis are inextricably linked and our politicians can’t be trusted on any aspect. 2019 saw millions of young students around the world take to the streets, and though stalled by the pandemic, that movement is more important than ever.
One of the positives from the year was the defeat of Trump. It may be hard to remember, but we started 2020 on the brink of war with Iran after he ordered the assassination of senior Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
His defeat at the ballot box was a victory for every activist that has mobilised against him and his reactionary politics over the last 4 years. It was a victory despite Joe Biden, not because of him. The centrist dinosaur, whose only policy was “I’m not Trump”, made the election far closer than it should have been.
And already Biden and the Democrat establishment have stressed bipartisanship in seeking to work with Republicans while attacking left wing Democrats. While there might be some improvements to Trump’s administration (as low a bar as you can get), it’s clear that Biden does not have the solutions needed.
The fight ahead
This year has been difficult for many people and it’s understandable that they can’t wait till it’s over. But the media have put a lot of effort into branding the problems we’ve seen this year as part of “2020” – you know, because once midnight strikes and 2021 begins, we can go back to normal.
But there is no normal to go back to. This crisis has only exacerbated the already-existing inequalities in society and shone a spotlight on them.
The people we now call “essential workers” were always the ones essential to the running of society, it has never ever been bankers or hedge fund managers. Bame people have been disproportionately hit by the virus because of the way racism is ingrained in every aspect of this system. And if we didn’t know before, we know that the government is as reliable as Dominic Cummings’ eyesight.
The same essential workers we clapped for are facing pay cuts. The same NHS workers still aren’t being given proper protection. Despite all the evidence and a new variant of the virus, the Tories are insisting on reopening schools next week. And while millions are facing unemployment and poverty, the very richest people in the world have increased their wealth by $10.2 trillion during the pandemic.
So we can’t just forget 2020, we need to remember. And remember not only how vindictive and incompetent our leaders are, but also that we fought back and won. From Marcus Rashford to the Manchester University occupiers – when we fight, we can win.
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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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