Act now or this will happen again

The avoidable devastation caused by Covid-19 is teaching us crucial lessons about the struggle for climate justice, argues Mike Downham. Action now can save lives and prevent even worse catastrophes in the future.This article was originally published in the Scottish Socialist Voice. You can download the relevant issue here.

Photo via Artivists at Work

Recently, I met two front-line doctors in Pakistan at a Zoom meeting. They described their work as a suicide mission. They have no PPE provided; they make what they can themselves. Health workers who protested were arrested and brutally treated. They have three ventilators for the whole country (population 213 million), and no staff trained to use them. Anyone who gets the coronavirus pneumonia dies. The government doesn’t have a policy.

In India, slum dwellers are being issued with hydroxychloroquine as an experiment – there’s no evidence that it’s effective. Getting food to these people, who by the way are human beings, is a bigger immediate problem than stopping infection. The government is panicking, already opening up the lockdown at a point when the epidemic is just taking off.

Yemen, after five years of civil war, has two million malnourished children. Malnutrition is notorious for reducing resistance to infections of all kinds. They don’t know how many cases of Covid-19 they have in the country because they don’t have tests.

Across Africa, where poverty and underfunded health services may well compound the crisis, the predictions for numbers of deaths are still up in the air – but how can you usefully describe the difference between hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of deaths?

Meanwhile, the UK Government, responsible for a rich, relatively small country, remains more concerned with covering its tracks than doing anything of significance. And the Scottish Government failed to adopt a better policy than Westminster’s at the point when they could have split. This was an act of subservience which the independence movement won’t forget.

What have we learned?

Saving lives must be our priority, and I’ll come back to that. But, first, this pandemic is a huge learning opportunity, and if we don’t take action on the basis of what we learn, and begin to take action now, rather than wait until ‘it’s all over’- there will be other pandemics of  new viruses, waiting for their moment. We need to act now to tackle the root causes, not just the symptoms.

There is little doubt that this new coronavirus originated in primary forests, as did Ebola, Zika, Swine Fever, Sars and Mers. All these viruses are thought to have existed for centuries in primary forests, where they were contained by sustainable ecosystems. The trouble started with deforestation to make way for agriculture – agriculture which has become more and more industrialised, monocultural and as a result unsustainable. There have been different intermediate hosts for each ‘new’ virus before it reached humans, and we don’t yet know which hosts were involved for the Covid-19 virus. Pigs are prime suspects, because pork has become a staple in China for the many who can now afford it. Average pork consumption is high at 39kg of pork in a year; in the US it 27kg per year. This appetite for pork has fuelled a huge expansion of highly profitable production by big companies. The animals are raised in factory farms with the usual cruel crowding and conditions. Last year 100 million pigs died in China with Swine Fever. These farms are mostly sited on newly bulldozed forest land.

The initial theory that the pandemic started in a wild animal market in Wuhan is no longer holding up, though it may have contributed. An additional factor may also have been that wild-animal foragers were forced to push deeper into forests to satisfy demand, another large and profitable food market for big business, disrupting sustainable ecosystems as they hunt.

The first thing we’ve learned, then, is that the profit motive on the part of big agricultural companies is the root cause of this pandemic. These companies, as we know, have expanded by grabbing forested land in poor countries – less expense, and easier to buy off protest.

The second thing we’ve learned is that governments, for the most part, have failed us in controlling this pandemic once it started. The most despicable examples are the UK and USA Governments. For the UK Government to be prepared to sacrifice older people to save the shareholders is an abuse of human life which people will never forgive.

The third, and biggest thing we’re learning is that we have the power to control this epidemic ourselves. London bus drivers, having failed to get adequate protection from the Government, or from the Mayor of London, or from Transport for London, took things into their own hands. They organised  through a WhatsApp group, sealed the front doors of their buses and waived fares. They were driven to this because they were dying – at the last count 30 TfL workers, bus drivers or Tube workers, have had their lives ended by corona virus infection.

Some NHS workers have decided, hospital by hospital, to refuse to work if they don’t have adequate protection. NO KIT, NO CARE. They feel they have a responsibility to make that painful decision, not only for their own survival as vitally essential workers, but also because they know that if they become infected they will pass on the virus to large numbers of both patients and other workers. They will not be complicit with hospitals becoming coronavirus reservoirs.

Construction workers are forcing closure of non-essential sites – luxury flats and hotels for example – if they do not have adequate protection, either by persuading management to shut down, or by walking out. NO KIT, NO WORK.

People not at work are setting up highly effective mutual support networks in their communities.

That’s a lot to have learned in a few weeks, but it’s not all. We’re learning, through lockdown, ways of daily living that had been taken away from us – people are realising  they’ve been working too hard, delegating too much of the care and education of their kids, delegating too much of the care of their older people, and relying too heavily on long and vulnerable supply chains for their necessities, especially food. They’ve learned above all that they like to have opportunities to be kind.

Climate catastrophe

This pandemic isn’t the biggest crisis we face. Far bigger is the crisis of global warming. Yet there are similarities between these crises. Both are killing large numbers of people. Both are global. And the only solution is radical change of the economic system, mediated through participative and decentralised democracy.

Some of the things we’ve learned from this epidemic are directly transferable to the fight against global warming. Bulldozing primary forest is as lethal through its huge impact on global warming, as it is through the setting free of new viruses. This means we must reject the proposal, supported by the Scottish Government, to replace Scotland’s old forests with monoculture quick-growing trees to capture carbon. ‘Bio Energy and Carbon Capture and Storage’ (BECCS) proposes harvesting these trees frequently to burn them in power stations. It is nothing more than a capitalist scam.

Last week, workers shut down the building of a new gas power station at Keadby, near Scunthorpe. The workers saw this as work which was only essential to the company (SSE), not to them or to the rest of us. It’s a short step from here to seeing the nonsense of building a new fossil fuel power station at the very point when we should be arguing, right now, for a Just Transition away from North Sea oil and gas. The construction workers will have jobs which are truly essential to all of us, and which will put their essential skills to better use. And we will be able to meet our carbon targets without resorting to carbon capture.

The action by London bus drivers to provide free bus travel puts us into a strong position to argue right now for publicly owned, democratically controlled, decarbonised and free public transport across the board. What’s more, people are already talking about how good it is to have less traffic on the roads. They know their health is benefitting from reduced air pollution.

Saving lives now

I’ll finish by coming back to the immediate priority of saving lives. There are three things we can all do to save lives, on top of social distancing.

We can encourage people in our communities and networks, particularly older people, who develop symptoms they think may be due to coronavirus, and become breathless, to phone for an ambulance if they can’t get through to NHS 111 or their GP. It’s become clear that many people are uncertain how ill they should be before calling for help, yet we’ve also learned that breathing difficulty can get worse rapidly, and that getting to hospital quickly gives people a better chance of being treated successfully. This decision isn’t easy to make, especially if you live on your own, or even for the people living with you. It can help to give your phone number to any older people you know so that they can at least speak with someone if they can’t get NHS advice when they need it.

Secondly, it’s also become clear that some people who suddenly become ill in other ways – they think they may be having a heart attack, or a stroke, or they have breathing difficulty because of COPD or asthma which has got worse – are hesitating about going to hospital at all. They may be frightened of catching the virus, or of putting further strain on the hospital and the ambulance service – or both. They may delay phoning, or even not phone at all. They can be supported to understand that although there is a risk of catching the virus if they go into hospital, the risk of not going into hospital is more certain. Paramedics are reporting that people are dying at home with these common non-Covid emergencies – or getting to hospital too late to be treated successfully.

Thirdly, we can join the swelling chorus of people demanding better PPE and testing in care-homes – for the sake of both residents and workers. It’s an on-going scandal that the Government continues to be slow to respond to the needs of care homes, and to be less than open about the numbers of deaths of people in care homes caused by this virus. In France, where care-home deaths have been added to hospital deaths in daily reports since early in their epidemic, around 50% of all Covid-19 deaths have been in care homes. The lack of respect shown by the UK Government for people dying in care homes by not even counting them is despicable.

This pandemic is frightening – people are dying around us in appalling numbers, and our governments have failed us. But the virus has brought with it a determination among people everywhere to change the way our world works. Nothing could be worse than a return to ‘normality’.

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