__Genuine concerns about infection are being exploited to crack down on legitimate opposition while penny-pinching is putting people at risk, argues Mike Phipps
On February 26th, the Iraqi government announced the closure of schools and universities, cafes, cinemas and other public spaces for a full week. The pretext was coronavirus, yet at the time Iraq had just six confirmed cases. The real reason was the anti-government protests which have taken over Iraq’s public squares in recent months. In response, young activists denounced Iraq’s politicians as the real virus. They continued their protests, distributing leaflets and delivering lectures on coronavirus prevention.
It’s not just authoritarian governments that see an opportunity in this crisis. Clearly drastic steps may be necessary to protect the public from this exceptionally infectious virus. But coronavirus gives all states a chance to rehearse the most draconian measures that restrict civil liberties, while also getting the public to help police the controls they impose.
Western officials are studying the Chinese response to the virus closely, after the World Health Organization said China’s reaction to the outbreak set a “new global standard”. China locked down around 50 million people in 16 cities. Millions of regime-supporting volunteers were mobilised to enforce strict rules to prevent contagion. In some areas, this meant locking people in their own homes – or barring residents from them if they have been out of town. Extensive human rights abuses have been catalogued, including the disappearance of journalists. Many fear that the extensive use of new technology to monitor citizens will be retained long after the virus is over as a new means of social control.
Western leaders openly admire the speed at which a dictatorship can get results. Yet it should be remembered that while the first case of coronavirus was reported on December 8th, Chinese authorities took over three weeks to issue a notice. In fact, they initially orchestrated a cover-up and arrested the doctor who alerted the world to the infection and who later died from it.
In the west, Italy, with 1,000 deaths from the virus, has taken the toughest measures, closing schools, many businesses and public venues. But factories, including the huge car plants, were told to carry on, which has led to strikes across the industry. “It defies logic,” said the union at one Fiat plant. “We’ll withdraw the protest only when the government and the company decide to stop everything and pay our time off. We can’t afford to lose more money for an inalienable right — to make our collective health and safety the top priority.” Walkouts have now spread to the shipbuilding and steel sectors.
Predictably, the virus is being used to advance the west’s war against migrants. Far right groups have been quick to blame the spread of infection on so-called open borders. The Greek government is citing the coronavirus as a reason to press ahead with its plan to build detention centres for migrants in the Aegean. Italy cancelled the humanitarian evacuation of 66 refugees from Niger because of coronavirus, although they had already been medically screened. Fox News claimed that people with coronavirus symptoms had crossed from Mexico, fuelling demands that Trump close the border. Trump’s ban on flights from the EU fits this narrative.
Russia has banned Chinese citizens from entering the country for work, private visit, educational and tourist purposes. The blanket demonization of an entire nationality is reflected in some tabloid newspaper coverage and in the rise in racist incidents against Chinese people in Britain. A Vietnamese artist was told by organisers not to attend London’s Affordable Art Fair because “Your presence on the stand would unfortunately create hesitation on the part of the audience to enter the exhibition space.” The US and European countries have also reported rising hostility towards Asians, often stoked by right wing populist politicians.
The economic impact of coronavirus is complex. There is a suspicion that the biggest falls on international markets since the global crash 12 years ago may have been coordinated to look more dramatic to strengthen the likelihood of state bailouts. “Most of Friday’s stock exchange losses have been recovered this morning,” blogged tax justice economist Richard Murphy on March 2nd. “And why? Because the markets believe that the coronavirus scare has now got to government, and that they will now bail out markets in the event of it developing further, meaning that it’s time for stock exchanges to take private profit at public cost yet again.”
In Britain, the policy of self-isolation for those affected by the virus will impact adversely on Britain’s 2 million workers – many of whom work in outsourced parts of the NHS and social care service – who do not qualify for statutory sick pay (SSP). (In the US, 34 million workers don’t get paid sick leave.) The TUC has called for on the government to scrap the minimum earnings threshold for SSP and ensure that it is paid to workers having to self-isolate. Paul Mason went further, calling for the creation of a one-off sickness grant of £697.60 designed to cover two weeks’ absence from work. But in his financial package to tackle coronavirus, the Chancellor did nothing to help those who don’t earn enough to qualify for SSP.
The NHS is hugely overstretched, with an acute bed shortage in hospitals, which are officially 99% full and where Brexit has undoubtedly aggravated the shortage of nursing staff. With 43,000 fewer nurses than it needs and 15,000 beds lost since 2010, the NHS will struggle to cope. England, for example, only has 15 beds for worst respiratory cases. One solution would be for the government to take control of private facilities, as in Spain, where the government has issued an emergency decree to take control of all the country’s healthcare facilities – including private hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacture – in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Care homes for the elderly, which make vast profits but where staff are also overstretched, are especially vulnerable. John McDonnell, responding to the Tory budget, highlighted the crisis in social care: “One and a half million people – before this virus outbreak – were not receiving the care they need. There are over 120,000 staff vacancies and many of the private providers have been on the financial edge for some time. We have an £8 billion funding gap in social care budgets, as the result of ten years of austerity. Providers and local authorities are already stretched to near breaking point.” He added that the government’s recently announced immigration policy exacerbates the crisis, potentially costing the care sector 500,000 overseas staff.
The UK government strategy has been criticised for not focusing on earlier testing. Worse, there are reports of staff being asked to handle patients without being told of their infection and without being given appropriate protection. Experts believe the government’s approach, which downplays testing and social distancing, will mean the virus will cause more fatalities, but its economic impact will be short-lived. As Richard Murphy concluded, “We can go for saving people, or we can go for saving the economy, but we cannot go for both. The government is choosing the economy.”
But it is poorer countries with minimal public healthcare that are likely to be worst hit. One commentator noted, “If the small number of cases in South Africa spreads, in a country where hundreds of thousands are HIV-positive with rock-bottom immune systems, the impact could be devastating.”
In the US, Trump’s initial description of the virus as a “new hoax” by Democrats bears similarities both to his denial of climate change and to the South African government’s denial of Aids twenty years ago, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Trump’s Administration believes the private sector will deliver the solution. Health Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug industry lobbyist, when asked about the affordability of any vaccine the private sector might develop, replied, “We can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest.” This is despite the fact that the research on this will be mostly funded by the public sector. Not for nothing did the health sector spend nearly $594 million on political lobbying last year.
Leaving the hunt for a vaccine to the private sector is a disaster for other reasons. Vaccines, suggested one commentator, “suffer from a near total lack of interest from the markets that drive the pharmaceutical industry. Only a few massive companies retain the ability to develop and produce a vaccine from start to finish, partly because of the expense and the timescales involved and partly because they’ve consolidated the patents on manufacturing processes.” For a rapidly spreading pandemic like coronavirus, the work necessary rarely turns a profit.
Jeremy Corbyn has called on Labour members to get involved in supporting vulnerable people in our communities – ensuring this is done safely and on the basis of public health advice. Mutual Aid groups are springing up all over the country and Labour activists are often at the heart of this. Different organisations are promoting a range of demands, including those from the People’s Assembly featured recently on Labour Hub.
But perhaps the priority is the need to shift from an outlook that is based on a horror of contamination, which plays into an ethnic nationalist narrative fuelling fear of the ‘outsider’, to an understanding that capitalism cannot put the health of humanity at the centre of its concerns – and hence we have to act on that basis.