Zero Covid is back up the political agenda

National Covid Memorial Wall, Southbank London

By Mark Buckley

The demand for a Zero Covid strategy has once more pushed up the political agenda, despite the efforts of the government and its media allies who claim that the pandemic is coming to an end. 

Cases are declining globally. But this is largely a combination of two geographical factors. The first is that in the Western imperialist countries, which have been the main hotspots for the spread of the virus, there have been lockdowns of variable effectiveness, combined with the preventive impact of the vaccine rollouts. But these lockdowns are generally now coming to an end and the vaccination programmes are very far from covering the entire population. The other factor is the reported fall in cases in India, which even Western media favourable to Modi describe as ‘baffling’ or ‘puzzling’. The Modi government has taken no measures to eliminate or even mitigate the virus, so the reported decline in cases is simply incredible.

Simultaneously, the continued circulation of the virus in many countries has led to a series of mutations, which contain the risk of greater transmissibility, greater virulence or even some degree of vaccine-resistance. This has even occurred in socialist countries which have effectively suppressed the virus such as Vietnam, which reports a hybrid of previous strains, demonstrating the global character of the virus and the fundamental truth of the People’s Vaccine campaign that ‘no-one is safe until everyone is safe’.

This process is now dominating the spread of the virus in the UK, where the Alpha variant first identified here has been displaced by the Delta variant first identified in India. The Delta variant is more transmissible and overall new cases are now rising at a rate of 33% per week, from a base of over 3,400 per day (on a moving average basis). COVID-19 hospitalisations are rising at a weekly rate of 28%.

The politics of the pandemic

Globally there is a clear divide between the countries that have put people before profits in the course of the pandemic, which includes countries such as Australia and New Zealand but are led by socialist countries, China and Vietnam. Under terrible conditions of blockade, Cuba has also been able to develop its own vaccines and has made efforts to suppress the virus.

They are opposed by the Western imperialist countries at every turn. Not only are they responsible for huge numbers of deaths of their own populations, the imperialist bloc of countries has also allowed the free circulation of the virus which led to mutation. They have also been blocking the vaccine patent waivers, which would allow the global mass production and delivery of vaccines. Once more they have put profits (in this case big pharma) ahead of lives. Modi and Bolsonaro in Brazil, who slavishly follow the policy of the imperialists, have been the other main contributors to the global death toll of well over 3.5 million.

There is a huge global clash taking place between these forces, where the issue of the response to the pandemic is currently central. Biden has done a U-turn, having initially supported the veto on the patent waivers precisely because of the pressure from China and others, which left the imperialist countries isolated at the World Trade Organisation

This is reinforced by what Western ideologues complain as China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’, while they hoard vaccines. China has provided over 700 million vaccine doses to the rest of the world. By contrast, the much-touted COVAX programme mainly of the imperialist countries has provided 70 million, and the US has supplied just 3 million, as Biden maintains Trump’s ‘America First’ policies.

The hundreds of millions of workers and the oppressed in the imperialist countries objectively have the same interests as the group of countries led by China: decisive suppression of the virus, a safe and early economic recovery and a mass, equitable distribution of the vaccines. 

Marxists understand this enormous clash as a global class struggle. Because of the dominance of reformism in the imperialist countries the concept of class struggle is frequently confined to trade unionism, and trade union demands. Marxists have an entirely different conception of class struggle. The capitalist ruling is not only powerful, but it dominates every aspect of society, not simply exploitation at work. Hence the antithesis of capitalism is socialism, the revolutionary transformation of the whole of society in the interests of all working people and the oppressed. It is not unionism.

In What Is To Be Done? Lenin famously formulated it this way: “every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct ‘the economic struggle against the employers and the government’. It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy [Marxism], that the Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

In Britain alone 150,000 people have died, almost a million have lost their jobs and half the workforce has had their pay cut in real terms. Various aspects have hit young people, disabled people, women the hardest. Black and Asian people have been hardest hit by all three scourges. If the government response to the pandemic is not a gigantic class struggle, then nothing is. 

As this is repeated across the world on a vast scale and is bound up with the international struggle of imperialism versus the working masses and the oppressed of all countries, this is unmistakably a global class struggle.

Next steps

Some leaders of the left in this country have clearly understood the significance of this assault. Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon, Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Claudia Webbe have been staunch supporters of the fight against government policy and supporters of a Zero Covid strategy. Jeremy Corbyn is a strong supporter of the demand for a ‘People’s Vaccine’. Some leading trade unionists have opposed some of the key aspects of government policy.

But in general those aspiring to leadership positions within the labour movement have gone AWOL in this titanic struggle. With a few honourable exceptions, this is true of the leadership of the labour movements and left parties in the imperialist centres. Generally, they are in the same camp as Starmer: when there was a huge assault on the working class and the oppressed, they sided with oppressors.

Mercifully, the world does not begin and end in the imperialist centres. China is playing a leading global role as an example of how the ‘whole of society, the whole of government’ can be mobilised to suppress the virus. Countries like Australia and New Zealand successfully copy key aspects of China’s policy and other socialist countries such as Cuba and Vietnam have played very important roles, to the limit of their objective circumstances.

In Britain, the planned full reopening on June 21st should obviously be postponed while cases are rising rapidly. In addition, key measures have never been put in place, and should be rectified. The vaccination programme is a success because it is in the dedicated hands of the NHS. The test and trace system is a shambles because its purpose is to rake in billions for the private sector, not to deliver public health. Similarly, there has never been a supported system for self-isolation. Restrictions on non-essential travel have been flimsy and there is no effective quarantine system. All of these need to change to reduce the risk of a renewed upsurge in cases, followed by hospitalisations and deaths, as well as the victims of long Covid.

In any event, the fight for Zero Covid is not over.