COVID-19 response: Incompetence or Callousness?

Mike Phipps looks at contradictions in the government’s approach to Covid 19 and how we should respond

The government’s initial response to the coronavirus crisis was characterised by tax justice economist Richard Murphy, who blogged: “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.”

This is still Trump’s position. To deflect blame, the virus is presented as “Chinese”, un-American. Economic intervention has been directed almost wholly at saving the corporate sector. Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein summed up the Trump Administration’s approach to the crisis: “What they’re doing is what they always do, which is talking to lobbyists and asking them, ‘What do you want?’ And so we’re seeing bailouts for the airline industry, bailouts for the cruise industry, bailouts for the hotel industry, Trump’s own industry.”

In Brazil, only insufficiently athletic people will be infected, says Bolsonaro: classic fascist stuff.

In the UK, the public outcry, including the pressure mounted in particular by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, has pushed the government into belatedly taking more steps. But Johnson’s approach is not science-led, otherwise there would be full compliance with WHO guidelines, including much more testing and tracing. The government’s position is led by behavioural science, nudge units, encouraging people to “make informed decisions for themselves”.

The danger for Johnson of acting decisively is twofold – firstly, accusations of authoritarianism – yet, there will be authoritarianism, have no doubt, and it will be directed against people of colour – already 40 times more likely to be stopped by the police – and foreigners entering the UK, who could be forcibly detained under new legislation. Secondly, a tough, science-led approach would necessarily be egalitarian, requiring the same level of commitment and standard from all sections of society.

This would mean shutting down capitalism for a bit, which is costly as the banks won’t get their interest. In February 2020, UK households owed £1,675 billion (or £1.7 trillion) – the highest amount ever recorded, equivalent to 112% of average earnings. £139 million per day transferred from households into financial markets as interest payments is essential for financial markets to survive. That’s why the government is going to pay some wages = so people can service their debts.

But it would also mean putting money into helping those at most risk from Covid 19 -older people, poorer people, those with compromised immune systems, health workers – and that’s a high price. Government advisors have openly debated whether it’s worth paying.

Plus, the health systems of the most advanced countries in the world – the G7 – are in no position to cope. Previous flu outbreaks on a far smaller scale underline that. The NHS is full to capacity and hugely under-staffed, short of 15,000 beds and 43,000 nurses. Social care has 120,000 staff vacancies and an £8 billion funding gap. This chronic running down of public health care explains why the government has to ignore the WHO recommendations. Where are the resources to obey them?

So grudgingly, bit by bit, Johnson lets the media express outrage at the numbers of people still making inessential journeys or not social distancing, and then gradually announces new ‘guidelines’. The messaging is deliberately fuzzy – you make your own chances and take your own risks and then if there is ever a real enquiry into the failings of how the UK dealt with it all, they can always blame the public for not sticking to their ‘guidelines’.

Guidelines, by the way, that are being selectively enforced. Victoria Park in one of the most densely populated parts of London gets closed. But you won’t find much social distancing being enforced on London’s rush hour trains or at Heathrow airport.

The US health care system is way more over-stretched. Profit-making meant the number of in-patient hospital beds declined by 39% between 1981 and 1999. South Korea has more than three times more beds available per thousand people than America, which is why it could act more decisively.

So that’s why Trump too, the ultimate authoritarian president, has passed up the opportunity to amass extra power on the back of this crisis. “I don’t take any responsibility at all,” he said, in response to a question about inadequate supplies of coronavirus testing kits. State governors are in charge of things, he said. ” We will be following them.”

As a recent Labour Briefing editorial put it: “What’s the most decisive thing western governments have done to fight coronavirus? Answer: Cut interest rates.” Western neoliberal governments have been exposed as a dangerous farce.

There are a range of demands that must be made. Of the Labour leadership contenders, Rebecca Long Bailey has the strongest proposals, including an immediate increase in Statutory Sick Pay, extending it to all workers; support for councils and funding for food banks; emergency measures on debt and essential payments; an increase in Universal Credit and an end to the 5 week wait; and requisitioning premises for additional medical facilities necessary to deal with the outbreak.

Adam Peggs in Red Pepper calls for the requisition of empty homes. Cat Hobbs in Tribune calls for the NHS to be fully reinstated as a public service, with proper funding, and also for “state suppliers of vital equipment and drugs, rather than relying on private companies who answer to shareholders first. Right now corporations are calling the shots and leaving our NHS at the whims of a global market.”

This is critical. It is reported that a German manufacturer of ventilators, inundated with demand for ten times as many machines as it can make, is having to decide which countries to prioritise. This is what leaving things to the market actually means.

Commandeering private facilities is vital, as in Spain, which issued an emergency decree to take control of all healthcare facilities – including private hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacture. Anti-crisis measures need to be socially just and universal, hence an end to private treatment for Covid-19 patients and to panic-shopping that hits key workers and the vulnerable. Price controls are needed on essential medical equipment.

Additionally, we need increased welfare payments and an end to sanctions, rents should be frozen and utility bills should be suspended, as in France. Given school closures, parents should get immediate leave to care for their children on full pay, with arrangements to feed children on free school meals. Local authorities must be compensated for loss of business rates. In an article in the Morning Star, Martin Wicks goes further: “Debt cancellation, for instance the debt owed by local authorities to the Public Works Loans Board (PWLB), would provide a huge increase in spending power because they would no longer have to repay loans or interest charges. Last year local authorities paid around £4.5 billion to the PWLB in loan repayments and interest charges. Overall, local authorities have around £77bn in debt held with the PWLB.”

All this looks costly, but remember: at the peak of the 2007-08 crash, the UK government provided guarantees and cash outlays of over £1tn to bail out banks. Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely right to say both in relation to past austerity and his 2019 manifesto that the money was always there. London councils are being told to get all their homeless into shelters to protect them. If we can do it now, why not always? And get this: Portugal has just announced that all asylum seekers and undocumented migrants with pending applications for residence are automatically granted and may access all state provision including healthcare and benefits. This shows what is possible in these extraordinary times.

There are other positives. We should be as fully involved as possible in the local Mutual Aid groups that have sprung up, now running in their tens of thousands. We should also resist attempts by local councils to offload vital specialist services onto volunteers in these groups.

Before we leave this, spare a thought for the global south. In the words of Grace Blakeley: “The World Bank has announced a fairly paltry $12bn to support states around the world in their response to the crisis. This cash will undoubtedly be doled out on a political basis – states friendlier to the US are likely to receive the lion’s share. The International Monetary Fund has made available a further $50bn.”

And in the world’s areas of conflict, it’s business as usual. The Palestine Chronicle reports Israeli forces demolishing an emergency coronavirus centre in a Palestinian village last week – a further reminder that it is the people least equipped to deal with this pandemic who will suffer the most.


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