The soothing mood music emanating from Downing Street is aimed at giving workers the impression that the health crisis is calming down and the government, guided by sober science, is now judiciously engaged in fine-tuning the gradual easing of the lockdown. The reality is quite other, however: the illness is not going away any time soon.
Every day, a further 8,000 people are getting infected by Covid-19, and there is every possibility of the illness building to a lethal second spike, thanks to the disorderly stampede back to work, the precipitate reopening of schools and the loosening of restrictions on social contact – a loosening driven not by science but by a desire to court cheap popularity and to reduce losses to big business and costs to the Treasury.
The reality is that Britain has so far notched up the second-highest death rate in Europe, narrowly pipped at the post by Spain, as measured by excess mortality figures. The Financial Times explains: “Excess mortality is calculated by counting everyone who has died in a country and subtracting the average number of people who passed away over the same period in the past five years,” and notes that “Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, called excess deaths ‘the key metric’.”
By this internationally recognised measure, Britain “has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March, indicating that the virus has directly or indirectly killed 891 people per million”.
And unlike other countries, which have managed to contain the worst of the virus mostly to within one or two geographical areas, in Britain the excess death rate rose sharply across the whole country. Given the tardiness of the government in imposing lockdown in the first place, and the precipitate way in which restrictions are now being eased, the conclusion drawn by the FT article makes sobering reading:
“Examining the cause of the high death rates in certain countries, the strongest link appears at this stage to be between the date of a country’s lockdown and the probable number of infections that already existed when restrictions were applied.” (UK suffers second-highest death rate from coronavirus by John Burn-Murdoch and Chris Giles, 28 May 2020)
Guided by the science?
The scientific establishment, until now tending to keep any concerns it may have had about public policy under wraps, is starting to show signs of discomfort at being asked to lend its professional credibility to help fill the government’s own gaping credibility gap.
No less than three of the government’s scientific advisors have started vigorously blowing their whistles over the latest batch of mixed signals issuing from Number Ten.
“Professor John Edmunds OBE sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – advising ministers on its response to the pandemic. The professor has warned Covid-19 incidents remain ‘really quite high’ in England, warning on the easing of restrictions: ‘We can’t lift things very much at all.’
“Prof Edmunds’ concerns join a growing list of expert advisers to the government expressing apprehension about England’s easing of lockdown. Prof Edmunds was joined by Professor Peter Horby, of the University of Oxford, and Sir Jeremy Farrar to warn that ministers are taking risks. All three are members of the Sage committee.
“Speaking to ITV News, Prof Edmunds said: ‘I think we are taking a bit of a risk at the moment, there’s a couple of things. One, the reproduction number is only just below one at the moment, so we don’t have a lot of headroom, we can’t lift things very much at all.
“‘Secondly, the incidents are really quite high, so [according to] the ONS survey we are getting 8,000 new infections every day in England, in just the community, that’s not counting cases that may occur in hospitals and care homes, and even other settings such as prisons. That’s quite a lot of cases, 8,000 every day.’” (Easing lockdown is ‘taking a bit of a risk’ warns top scientific adviser to government, ITV, 30 May 2020)
Another expert to speak out was a former director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Professor Anthony Costello. He warned that the country could face a “resurgence” of the disease.
Ever since news of the pandemic hit the headlines, the government has been inconsistent in its handling of the situation. It delayed implementing a lockdown in the first place, allowing major crowd events like the Cheltenham races to claim their crop of victims. Once the lockdown was in place, the official advice came out in piecemeal form with many mixed signals, with even the police struggling to make sense of the rules.
And now that the government has begun to relax the rules in fits and starts, it is suddenly getting enthused about test, track and trace as the panacea that will fix everything – having dragged its feet for months on testing, and having as yet only got so far as launching eleven track-and-trace pilot experiments.
Boris Johnson’s ‘whack-a-mole tactics’
Boris Johnson’s reaction to the recent Covid outbreak in Weston hospital neatly sums up the chaotic opportunism which takes the place of any real planning.
When news broke that 40 percent of the staff who had been tested for the virus came out as positive (many of them asymptomatic) and more than 60 patients were infected, necessitating the closure of the hospital to new patients, the prime minister seized on this disaster to blow his own trumpet, claiming that it demonstrated the efficacy of government policy.
Rather than ponder about what such an occurrence might warn us about encouraging day trippers to head en masse to seaside locations like Weston, he claimed that the decision to close the hospital was in accordance with a grand plan to enforce more localised measures in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.
Johnson claimed: “We will be working with the local outbreak committees, and those responsible for dealing with whatever happens locally, and we will go through the local resilience forums which are leading on this.
“The Joint Biodiversity Centre will be looking at, for instance, the other day you saw there was an outbreak in Weston-super-Mare. We moved very quickly to close things down there to try to sort it out. That is the kind of whack-a-mole tactics that we are going to use as we keep driving the virus down and keep reducing the incidents.” (‘Whack-a-mole’ closure of Somerset hospital is first example of new localised lockdown tactics to curb coronavirus spread – Boris Johnson by Tomas Malloy, Somerset Live, 27 May 2020)
Or, in other words, keep on reacting to events, keep on fighting individual brush fires, and muddle through with no real plan.
Meanwhile, the stick needed to enable this ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy to be implemented – testing, tracking and tracing – is noticeably absent. Test results still routinely take 48 hours to arrive, despite the fact that effective contact tracing needs to be done within two days of a person becoming symptomatic.
Moreover, although some 2,000 people a day are presently being tested positive for coronavirus, the contact tracing that is supposed to follow diagnosis is not actually in place.
In the first four days of the tracing system going live, many of the 3,000 clinical caseworkers and 15,000 non-clinical ‘tier 3’ tracers who have been employed to do this vital job reported being unable to log into the system in order to carry out training modules, or unable to see any cases when they had logged on.
As one tracer put it, there is “an awful lot of money being poured into people to sit around not doing the job they were hired to do”. Despite all the evidence from other countries that this infrastructure would be our only route to contain the virus and first prevent and then come out of lockdown, the government only began seriously to discuss it in late April. (Contact tracers claim they have no work in ‘shambolic’ system by Billy Kenber, The Times, 1 June 2020)
Capitalism serves profit, not the people
Only a national plan driven by the welfare of the population, not by the capitalist market, would deal with the pandemic in the most humane and sane way, and only socialism can deliver that, as demonstrated in China, Cuba and the DPRK.
In a recent article in the Guardian, George Monbiot pointed to what he describes as “the pernicious role of corporate power in public policy”, and how that hampers efforts to deal with health crises like the current pandemic.
A case in point has been the tragic farce over getting hold of the right personal protective equipment (PPE). Monbiot notes that some lucky manufacturing companies “have mysteriously been granted monopolies on the supply of essential equipment. These private monopolies have either failed to meet their contracts, or provided defective gear to the entire NHS, like the 15m protective goggles and the planeload of useless surgical gowns that had to be recalled.
“Instead of stockpiling supplies, as emergency preparedness demands, companies in these chains have been using just-in-time production systems, whose purpose is to cut their costs by minimising stocks. Their minimised systems could not be scaled up fast enough to meet the shortfall.”
An approach to inventory control like this may be superb for generating profits but has proved a disaster when it’s a question of protecting the health of key workers.
Again, speaking of the wholesale privatisation of the care sector, Monbiot notes: “Even before the pandemic, the system was falling apart, as many care companies, unable to balance the needs of their patients with the demands of their shareholders, collapsed, often with disastrous consequences.
“Now we discover just how dangerous their commercial imperatives have become, as the drive to make care profitable has created a fragmented, incoherent system, answerable sometimes to offshore owners, that fails to meet basic standards, and employs harassed workers on zero-hour contracts.”
And if the moneybags fear that emergency steps taken by a national government to deal with a national crisis may harm a hair on the head of their profit-taking, they will not hesitate to go to a (bourgeois) court to defend the rights of private property against the people’s health and welfare.
Monbiot cites a report by the Corporate Europe Observatory, which “shows how law firms are exploring the possibility of suing governments for the measures they have taken to stop the pandemic. Many trade treaties contain a provision called ‘investor state dispute settlement’. This enables corporations to sue governments in opaque offshore tribunals, for any policies that might affect their ‘future anticipated profits’.
“So when governments, in response to coronavirus, have imposed travel restrictions, or requisitioned hotels, or instructed companies to produce medical equipment or limit the price of drugs, the companies could sue them for the loss of the money they might otherwise have made.” (Tory privatisation is at the heart of the UK’s disastrous coronavirus response by George Monbiot, The Guardian, 27 May 2020)
Socialist planning serves the people
Such is the morality of the degenerate capitalists, shaping the morality of the societies they dominate. It is past time for it to be seen off by the revolutionary morality of the working class.
When apologists for capitalism furrow their brows and tell us how complicated it is to plan to meet the needs of society, we should invite them to take a look at how China and Cuba have been dealing with the pandemic. Or have a look at how the DPRK has been coping, despite the imposition of US sanctions, which seek to punish the Korean people for choosing the socialist path.
In a recent interview, Russian ambassador to Pyongyang Alexander Matsegora paid tribute to the vigorous measures that the north Korean government has taken to protect the health of its people.
“I must say that the leadership of the DPRK has taken the most resolute and strict measures to prevent this infection from entering the country. And it did so before anyone else. Even China still kept its borders open, but here entry/exit restrictions were introduced at the end of January, and since the beginning of February, the outer borders were tightly closed with an iron lock.
“Since then, it has become absolutely impossible to come here, even for north Korean citizens who are abroad – all of them still cannot get to their homeland (as you know, it is the compatriots returning from abroad who are the main distributors of infection for any country). The border provinces that have the most advanced ties with China were isolated from the rest of the country, as, by the way, was Pyongyang, where Chinese tourists came back in January.
“As for those who entered here after the outbreak of the epidemic in China, all of them, including foreigners, were placed in an unconditional 30-day quarantine, followed by daily checks by visiting teams of doctors for another month.
“Already in February, everyone here wore masks, and in every institution, in every entrance to residential buildings, their temperature was measured at the entrance and their hands and shoes were disinfected. School children and students were placed in complete isolation in mid-February, which began to weaken only in early May.
“Now there has been further easing of the measures. We are able to visit the market and all major shopping centres and the country has gradually begun to import goods again, but there is no international passenger traffic, and masks and widespread disinfections remain.”
Countering those who dismiss the DPRK’s efforts to combat the pandemic and accuse the government of secrecy about the virus, Matsegora pointed out: “Pyongyang does not hesitate to give World Health Organisation (WHO) and international humanitarian organisations comprehensive information about such diseases as tuberculosis or dysentery (and receives substantial assistance for their treatment).” (Russia unhappy at dialogue deep freeze between Pyongyang and Washington, The Communists, 31 May 2020)
It is the imperialist media in the west that try to conceal the successful efforts of the socialist countries in dealing with the virus, eager to hide their success, fearing that the world’s peoples might learn from their example.