Socialism, or communism, or whatever you want to call a society of the future, will not save us from occasional epidemics. It would however deal with them in an entirely different way.
In the first place it would not try to shut up (in both senses of the word) the first people who spotted there was a problem, like the late Dr. Li Wenliang.(1) All China’s political leaders could see was that Dr Li was bringing “China” into disrepute. This was for them both a political and economic threat since international reputation means everything in a world of globalised trade. It means even more in the middle of a crisis of capitalist stagnation which has produced trade wars across the planet. Dr. Li was an embarrassment to the Chinese state and his death from the virus will remain a perpetual indictment of it.
A Global Threat requires a World System
But a socialist society would have no “nations” and no borders. There would instead be world administration for health organised, as in every other sector, to protect the health of the community from localities and regions to a global level. Today, the nearest thing to this is the dis-United Nations. The health body of that ineffectual organisation is the World Health Organisation. Its Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has from the beginning of this pandemic insisted that “test, test, test” was the key to halting the spread of the virus.(2)But who is listening? Apart from states which have already had experience of SARS and MERS as well as other flu epidemics (like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong), his words have been largely ignored. In the listed states the testing regime has been accompanied by serious isolation measures in good time. Not so elsewhere, especially amongst the top economic dogs on the planet.
Whilst the WHO declares that “This virus is presenting as an unprecedented threat … We can come together against a common enemy, an enemy against humanity”(3), there is already a war of words over who started it.
The US Government regularly refers to the virus as “the Chinese disease” whilst China has retaliated by spreading the story that the virus was developed in a US laboratory in the Ukraine before being unleashed on the unsuspecting citizens of Wuhan. Both are expelling each others’ journalists as part of this upgrade of the trade war. As this pandemic proceeds this imperialist competition could yet bring us more misery in the form of even more wars to add to the massacres in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Sahel.
The British Government Response: From Eugenicism to “Socialism”
The Director-General is not the only one to call for “people” to unite in the face of Covid-19. In a remarkable couple of weeks of contradictory government pronouncements and U-turns, Boris Johnson and his entourage have flipped policies.
On 13 March, flanked by Whitty and Vallance, his scientific advisers, he declared that the British public must “prepare to lose loved ones before their time”. Vallance went on to tell Sky News that about 60% of the UK population, or around 40m people would need to contract the virus. “Herd immunity” it was declared would, over time, build up the resistance of the general population. That some would die before their time was a price worth paying. So British citizens were left to face the greatest health emergency for a century, with a policy of “just wash your hands whilst singing Happy Birthday twice”! There was no need for ‘social distancing’ or other protective measures. This was not just the politics of the ostrich but calculated inhumanity. The Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is a self-confessed eugenicist and not the only Tory to have voiced the beneficial effect of getting rid of the “unproductive” elderly segment of the population.
The real agenda behind this “laissez-faire approach” to health was to avoid inflicting further economic pain on an already stagnating economy, still reeling from the 2008 meltdown and the uncertainties of Brexit. Profits before people has always been the aim of the game. The Government thus left it up to individual head teachers to decide whether or not to close their school and Johnson denied any need to shut down mass entertainment and leisure venues, even as the Premier League (whose management is not renowned for its wisdom) announced an end to football fixtures.
In fact this particular game began to unravel quite quickly. Two days later, as the Health Secretary (Matt Hancock) called on “anybody who can” to turn production over to ventilators (“no number is too high”) he let it be known that the government intended to bring in emergency legislation to ‘oblige’ people over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months. (By then the official number of Covid-19 cases in the UK had reached 1,372 with 35 deaths. But since hardly anyone is being tested all figures can be no more than rough guestimates.)(4)
Then, lo and behold, less than a week later, Johnson announced compulsory and indefinite school closures (though with so many caveats about their remaining open for children of “key workers” and others that teachers even now do not know what the shutdown really means). Headteachers are still awaiting instructions from the government. In another U-turn the Government finally decided (Friday 21st March) to order the closure of all cafés, pubs and restaurants, cinemas, gyms, nightclubs and leisure centres by Saturday morning. The bosses in these sectors were demanding this, since they were already in crisis anyway (and that was before coronavirus hit them) and can now claim insurance.
Predictably these flip-flop pronouncements have been accompanied by references to the mythical World War Two spirit of the Blitz and invocations for everyone to pull together in “one gigantic national effort”. So not unsurprisingly, many across the UK have responded to the uncertainty and prospect of domestic lockdown by stocking up for the siege. Another government minister, George Eustice, Environment secretary has conceded that there is now £1bn in unconsumed food in UK homes. In a press conference he asked people to stop panic buying, saying that if you’re under lockdown or can’t get to the shops before they’re looted you don’t need to worry too much – “once people have stocked up with food this surge will taper off.” In a further move that will reassure no-one, Defra has hired an executive from Nestle to be director of food supply and set up a ”war room” which will ensure the UK’s food security! As for toilet rolls and stuff like that, they won’t come under the war room remit because it’s best that “retailers come together” to decide the “appropriate level”. Nothing like handing responsibility to retailers to reassure everyone! The retailers, that is, whose bottom line is to make a profit come what may. The retailers who came up with the great idea to give over-Seventies early morning purchasing priority slots at the same time as workers on the coronavirus front line who are thus most at risk of having and spreading the infection. Add to that the retailers who have hardly a thought for the protection of their workforce. How many check-out workers or shelf-fillers have you seen with gloves or face masks? How many stores are requiring customers to keep a safe distance from each other, either outside or in?
The Scandalous Treatment of Healthworkers
And the lack of support for the doctors, nurses and other front line staff is nothing short of a criminal scandal. For a start there were already 100,000 unfilled posts in the NHS before this crisis erupted. On top of that there has been consistent underfunding of the NHS since the present crisis of accumulation broke out in the 1970s. The first cuts came under Callaghan in 1977 (to get a loan from the IMF) then Thatcher cut the wards but kept the beds in storage. These were disposed of on Blair’s watch, and the last ten years of Tory austerity have finished the job off.
Now doctors and nurses are either issued with sub-standard personal protection equipment (expect to hear more about PPE) or have to buy their own. The Government’s guidelines on covering up against coronavirus fall well short of WHO recommendations and even where staff have cover they cannot change it often enough because they don’t have time. As one doctor told the New York Times:
Britain has fewer intensive-care beds than most other European countries. Occupancy rates are high, and there’s a daily struggle to discharge enough people to make space for new patients. Even when a bed is available, we do not have the nurses to staff it. A decade of cuts and underfunding has left us dangerously exposed. This is the perpetual winter of the NHS. (5)
13 doctors have already died and the rest of the service is at serious risk in a society where the determination of the Government to downplay the epidemic is already having consequences they thought they could avoid.
All in this Together?
As it is they have now been forced to take measures, including a nation-wide lockdown, that are unprecedented in peace time and will have repercussions for years ahead. In addition to a £350 billion loan package to support business (provoked by the collapse of both the pound and the stock market) it has finally dawned on them that the massive unemployment created by the end of much economic activity especially in the service sector would lead to a domino effect of collapsing demand. Consumer spending had already fallen in the third quarter of 2019. With average household debt in the UK over £15,000 according to some sources, there was serious danger that this too would dry up for many.(6) This is why they have decided to pay 80% of the wages of some workers up to £2,500 a month. This will likely cost £78 billion more on top of any other bailout plans. They will have to resort to more printing of money but unlike quantitative easing this will not be to cover past debts of the financial sector. It will instead enter directly into circulation and thus is likely to be inflationary. This in turn will trigger a rise in interest rates and those already struggling to pay even at the virtually nil interest rate will find that they cannot pay their debts.
The Government package has come too late for many of those already sacked and they will be forced to take Statutory Sick Pay (if they are eligible) or wait for Universal Credit. Those classed as “self-employed” (5 million) are not covered nor are gig workers. And of course Chancellor Sunak’s scheme is not due to kick off until mid-April. However it is clear that this unprecedented step has been forced on the Government by the realisation that this crisis poses an existential threat to capital, including the possibility of serious ‘social unrest’ of a kind that would make the riots of the past look like a tea party. In short the agenda is still about saving UK inc. from an even worse economic and social meltdown, rather than saving those who create its wealth in the first place. It certainly is not “socialism” as many social democrats are trying to claim.
Aiding and abetting the Sunak plan is the TUC which, above all else, wants to secure the survival of capitalism, especially the home-grown kind. Preferably, of course, with itself in a new position of responsibility.
The TUC has written to the Prime Minister urging him to pull together unions, business and government agencies to minimise the economic and health impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The aim of the taskforce will be to bring stakeholders together to co-ordinate support and ensure that measures are being effectively targeted, delivered and accessed by employers and workers in need. The taskforce should be chaired by a Cabinet Minister.(7)
One union boss on BBC radio news warned that Sunak’s measures were necessary to prevent people “who cannot put food on the table” taking to the streets. Union leaders elsewhere, like Landini in Italy, were urging the same on their government, as a wave of strikes rippled across the country.(8) This forced the Conte Government to shut down all non-essential (i.e. non-food and non-health) factories and workplaces.
As ever the unions are re-emphasising their role as defenders of the national capital (as they did in 1914 in supporting imperialist war across Europe and the world). They have already joined the chorus of unity of “we must all pull together” to the rescue of a system which is once again showing that it is not only long past its sell-by-date but is also a menace to the lives of so many. This global crisis is not just a health crisis but an exposure of the real priorities of capitalism. Preservation of the profits system comes before meeting the real needs of the world’s population. As its impact deepens it remains to be seen how the world’s working class will respond and whether or not the programme of world revolution gets a wider hearing. One thing is certain – it is time for the world’s working class to come together politically if we are to end the misery of billions.