Alex Colás reviews The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality, by Toby Green, published by Hurst.
Eighteen months of Covid-19 has given the world plenty of time to reflect on the causes, consequences and the future responses to this and similar pandemics.
From the left, the focus has rightly been on the role of capitalist agribusiness and extractivism in generating and circulating deadly zoonoses; the ways in which the virus is in symbiosis with existing structural inequalities and social injustices; and how an effective, publicly-run system of tracking, tracing, isolating, supporting, and now vaccinating affected populations is the most democratic way of controlling the virus. Zero Covid has been the shorthand for this strategy locally, and a vaccine patent waiver the immediate demand globally.
But the left’s position, this book argues, has one big Achilles’ Heel: the hard lockdowns associated with Zero Covid systematically exacerbate class, gender, racialised and generational inequalities.
Green highlights “Supermarket and warehouse operatives in the West who were unable to do their jobs remotely and were forced to carry in working cramped conditions and take risk regardless; single parents in poor accommodation suddenly unable to cope with rents as debts spiralled; women and children living in abusive situations compounded by the new layers of stress … Chilean, Colombian and Peruvian children whose futures were taken away from them as schooling ceased for a year.”
Despite sharing a forename with another, more notorious, lockdown sceptic, Toby Green’s critique of blanket restrictions is generally nuanced and rigorous. This is not a thoughtless polemic, but a reasoned plea for progressives to put social inequality at the centre of pandemic responses. It overlaps with other, more explicitly socialist warnings about the perils of a ‘desire’ for an authoritarian State and the need for a critical understanding of pandemic biopolitics.
A historian of Africa and the Atlantic slave trade, Green deploys social scientific approaches to data, analysing in the book’s two core chapters on inequality and global poverty, what are stark but often decontextualised statistics in a wider socio-economic setting.
Not only are historical comparisons with, for instance, the Spanish Flu anachronistic – the scale of fatalities and the nature of the global economy and workforce are markedly different – but, more importantly he claims, a fixation on fighting the virus is masking the negative knock-on effects in other areas of public health. Epidemiologists and virologists are getting all the attention, to the detriment of views on the pandemic from general practitioners, social workers or child psychologists.
Moreover, as another prominent Africa specialist, Alex de Waal has recently underlined, the martial language of lockdowns, curfews, quarantines and battling viruses has a long pedigree in colonial and other dictatorial histories, and it is deeply intertwined with actual wars and the ‘securitisation’ of health by the State.
As an Africanist, Green highlights the perils of adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the pandemic in the many countries of the Global South where the informal economy is central to social reproduction. In April 2020, the International Labour Organisation warned that 1.6 billion precarious workers – around 50% of the global workforce – were at risk of losing their livelihoods as a result of Covid-19.
The counter-argument is that the more draconian shutdowns in places like China, New Zealand and Vietnam have allowed a safer, and more immediate economic bounce-back. Yet for every such example of Zero Covid achievements, there are contrasting experiences of, say, Spain or Chile, where especially stringent quarantines have not produced better health or economic outcomes.
The evidence thus points to the latter being conditioned by diverse political and social-demographic factors, unique to different societies, rather than the unqualified success of either Zero Covid or indeed the Swedish model of ‘focused protection’ that Green advocates. If there is a universal rule about virus suppression, Green concludes, it is “that there is a correlation between health spending and overall health outcomes.”
The book is strongest when interconnecting the medical and social consequences of prolonged lockdowns, seen through the filter of multiple inequalities. It is much weaker, however, in explaining the politics of ‘Covid consensus’ of the book’s subtitle, even less so in offering a democratic roadmap out of the present crisis.
Green claims a quasi-conspiratorial convergence of Big Data modelling and Big Tech investment in ‘from-home’ platforms, allied to the world’s adoption of a Chinese model of mass surveillance, are responsible for legitimising shutdowns as a pandemic response.
Leaving aside that Green’s own book shows a wide divergence in the forms of lockdown and, as he himself acknowledges, the Covid-19 acceleration – rather than invention – of a trend toward the private domestication of public life, the political and legislative disputes over the nature and extent of lockdowns in this and other countries surely indicates there is no firm consensus on this policy. If anything, protracted lockdown as a form of virus suppression is in most parts of the world now correctly viewed as a sign of policy failure. It’s a last resort in the face of poor and insufficient pandemic preparation. A fast, efficient and universal global vaccination programme – like past pandemic disease eradication campaigns – is the route out of the current crisis.
In the meantime, Green’s book should give all progressives pause when thinking about preventing, or at least mitigating the next pandemic. If nothing else, books like this show how public information and debate on complex scientific issues are too important to be left to epidemiological modellers alone. Climate change, an industrialised food system, and the accompanying encroachment on tropical wildlife are likely to produce more frequent, and probably more dangerous zoonotic spillovers into human societies.
The responses to global heating, social inequalities, and future viral pandemics are interconnected. Radically decarbonising advanced capitalist economies, drastically reducing supply chains, redesigning our cities, homes and public buildings and, above all, massively investing in global public health infrastructure and personnel are surely common-sense preparations for the virus next time.
Alex Colás teaches international relations at Birkbeck College, University of London and is co-author of Capitalism and the Sea.
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