By Martin Breslin
Boris Johnson has announced his intention to remove all remaining protections against the spread of the virus, including the requirement for infected people to self-isolate. This was clearly a political decision, designed to cement his alliance with the far right of the Tory Party in order to save his own job.
The resistance to this policy of social murder on a mass scale has devolved to campaigners, increasingly militant medics and scientist as well as an honourable but small minority of the labour movement and left MPs. The bulk of the labour movement remains silent in its acquiescence. They remain in thrall to the Starmer leadership, who has advanced the slogan that it “very difficult to find a dividing point” between Labour and the Tories, which could be applied to every important area of policy.
Johnson is taking his cue on removing restrictions from the pro-business lobbying of the ‘Covid Research Group’, which like the Tory Party itself is increasingly the creature of the most parasitical finance capital, hedge funds, private equity, vulture funds and the rest.
It is clear from the scientists involved that neither SAGE nor NERVTAG offered the advice to completely end restrictions. However inadequate and compromised some of them may be, it is extremely difficult to find even a scientist or medic on the government payroll who would advance such a policy, which contravenes hundreds of years of medical practice. Even Medieval Europe faced with the plague practised isolation to prevent infection, including famously whole villages who accepted the risk of death to save others.
The capitalist governments of North America and Western Europe show no such morality. In general, theirs has been a ‘herd immunity’ approach combining vaccination and infection. Other measures have only temporarily been applied under popular pressure or when the infection has run completely out of control. It has been a catastrophe, with the richest countries in the world responsible for more than a third of global deaths and a death rate three times the global average.
Johnson’s announcement would complete this cycle, removing all protections despite very elevated levels of hospitalisations and death, both higher than when safeguards were still in place last year.
To date, the most important rejection of these policies has come from the government in Wales, led by the centre-left Labour administration. It remains to be seen what the other devolved administrations will do, but it is clear that none of them was informed or consulted before Johnson’s announcement.
The medics and scientists, mainly grouped in and around Independent SAGE have become increasingly militant in opposition to government policy and have denounced the plan. This has even drawn in figures more closely associated with the government, while officer-holders such as Whitty and Vallance have remained silent, and van Tam has already quit.
It remains the case that an honourable band of Labour left MPs are resolutely opposed to the government plans, led by Diane Abbott, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Richard Burgon and others.
Unison general secretary, Christina McAnea, the head of a union which represents many education and health staff, said the move appeared premature given infections in schools are rife and high numbers new cases. “Everybody wants to get back to normal but Covid risks haven’t disappeared,” she told the Guardian. “This is going too far, way too soon.”
By contrast, the response of the TUC was useless, declaring that “this is not a green light for employers to cut corners.” This is precisely what it is. Naturally, the move was welcomed by all the main employers’ organisations, as it puts their interests first.
The left in the pandemic
There is a very good article in Socialist Worker, Russia 1917, how a revolution beat back a pandemic, detailing the Bolshevik response to an outbreak of typhoid. The response was to crush it, giving absolute priority to public health and protecting the mass of the population. In Lenin’s words, “either the lice will kill the revolution, or the revolution will kill the lice”.
Updating for modern society and technology, this has been exactly the response of the CPC in China. The socialist response to any lethal mass infection is to use all possible levers to eradicate it to protect the public. In the famous dictum of the Communist Manifesto, ‘communists have no interests separate and apart from the working class as a whole.’ In a pandemic killing millions of people, the clear duty is prioritise removing the virus that is killing them.
Other socialist countries have also tried to suppress the virus, constrained by the specific conditions of each society, including Cuba’s dependence on tourism, and Viet Nam’s lower level of healthcare provision.
In the Global South the response to the pandemic has been markedly better than in the imperialist countries. These countries literally have death rates hundreds of times lower than the imperialist centres of North America and Europe.
It is the imperialist countries who are completely out of step with the rest of the world. The have relied solely on vaccination programmes. These are highly lucrative for Big Pharma, but, as the death toll shows in the imperialist countries hoarding vaccines, by themselves they have proven to be wholly inadequate.
In reality, the imperialist centres have allowed a eugenicist cull of the population, condemning vast numbers of disabled people and the vulnerable to be killed. At the same time, they have used the upheaval to impose far-reaching defeats on the working class and oppressed, increasing exploitation and oppression of all types.
Aside from honourable exceptions, most of the left and the labour movement as a whole has been completely supine in face of these attacks. Instead, they parroted their own governments’ lines about returning to normal. They have to falsify the current attacks on jobs, pay and conditions to maintain the fiction about the ‘return to normal’.
They have focused instead on matters such an increasing Statutory Sick Pay. Naturally socialist support this measure too, and have called for it from the outset, and for SSP eligibility to be broadened. But you have to get sick first to benefit from higher SSP, when the task of socialists is to defend the workers.
Yet now there are signs of some emerging mass resistance to at least some of these attacks, driven by the disastrous fall in living standards. These need to be supported and generalised. The task of socialists is explain how these issues are linked, how the new authoritarianism, revoking of rights, increased racism and driving women back into caring roles, how austerity are all being consciously facilitated by the government’s response to the pandemic. And to build the forces willing to resist.