Zero Covid-19: what we can do

Current UK Government strategy, unchecked, would mean thousands of avoidable deaths in the coming months. Mike Downham outlines what we can all do now to stop that from happening.

Image: Artivists at Work

Over the past week, there has been a step-change in both the Covid-19 epidemic in England and in the clarity of the government’s response to it.

This can be illustrated by the news items the BBC chose to headline yesterday(7 July). In this order we were given: the outbreak in Melbourne, where 5 million people have been locked down; pubs in Hants, Somerset and Yorkshire discovering that they had customers on Saturday night who have subsequently tested positive for coronavirus; the Government’s announcement of another greenwash climate package; the BMA’s concern that we now face an even greater crisis in mental health; and Johnson’s despicable attempt to blame care workers for care home deaths.

Today, the news has been dominated by the government’s inadequate economic rescue package. Predictably, these are fundamentally about benefitting the 1% to the disadvantage of the rest of us. But all this should not distract us from the government’s overall approach to managing the epidemic.

Missing from yesterday’s news was the Independent Sage Committee’s seventh report, published yesterday, and titled Zero Covid-19: Why is England not pursuing an elimination strategy?

This is the first of seven key points the Report makes:

The prospect of many thousands of further deaths from COVID-19 over the next nine months is unacceptable.

In the text, this is expanded to:

We fear that the government has given up trying to control the pandemic further and is hoping that by reacting to local outbreaks as and when they happen (e.g. the current Leicester lockdown), it can keep levels of infection at what they regard as a ‘manageable level’ … Thousands of lives could be saved over the next year by a renewed effort to further suppress the virus.

The report also makes it clear that the Test Trace Isolate (TTI) system in England has failed, largely because it is co-ordinated centrally. It took three weeks for the evidence of an outbreak in Leicester to reach the Leicester City Council and its Director of Public Health.

So, we are squarely back to where we were with the government’s strategy at the start of the epidemic. But now we can see through it for what it is. ‘Herd immunity’ was in fact entirely spin. The government was forced by scientists to relinquish that spin, but not its underlying strategy. This strategy was and is to accept the deaths of large numbers of people they regard as superfluous to their economic and political interests – older people, BAME people, people with underlying medical conditions, people with disabilities, people on benefits, people without jobs, homeless people, asylum seekers and refugees.

The government has so far got away with this strategy by intentionally confusing and dividing people with complicated guidelines. Some of these guidelines, such as social distancing in the construction industry, post office sorting centres, meat processing plants, crowded beaches, schools and pubs, are not just confusing but impossible. This, they think, will not only enable them to get the market-led economy going again, but will also shield them from blame for the collateral damage. They can point to individual people or pubs or schools or workplaces who are ‘breaking the rules’.

Above all, the government has persuaded us that the epidemic has subsided, and that all we have to do now is to recover. But all the evidence, even from the corrupted official Sage Committee, says the opposite. The unanimous message is simple, the epidemic is NOT over.

Meanwhile the Labour Party sacks Long-Bailey, says that people who are in work should get more in benefits than people who aren’t, and has in general lost all the oppositional edge it once had in protecting working class people from the worst predations of capital.

What can we do, and what position should we take at this new crisis point?

We are familiar with the depth and breadth of exploitation and oppression of which capitalism is capable. We know the enemy. But once again we have been led a dance. What we are up against now, in this epidemic, is class cleansing.

Having understood what is really happening, I suggest there are three thing we must do, and support those who are already fighting for them:

  1. Saving lives

We must call for a reversal of all relaxation of lockdown in England until the virus has been eliminated and a secure TTI system is in place. It’s not too late to prevent a second epidemic wave. As the Independent SAGE report argues, this new strategy needs to be informed by science, publicly debated and ‘developed with the public’.

  1. Saving Jobs

We must oppose every single proposed job loss in sectors, which are essential for our future – jobs in Higher Education, Schools, Health Services, Care Services, Public Transport, and any job the object of which is to improve quality of life and which at the same time is either carbon-saving or carbon-neutral. We should campaign for publicly funded carbon-saving or carbon-neutral jobs for every job lost in sectors of the high-carbon economy currently making cuts, such as aviation.

  1. Organising where we live

We must organise not just in workplaces, but in our neighbourhoods. The first purpose of this will be to support each other through what is now inevitably going to be a long period (think of one year) of extreme difficulty for many of us in terms of employment and everyday poverty, with associated high levels of mental distress. The ultimate purpose is to move from material to political demands, each neighbourhood becoming a building block for a mass movement, with the power to overcome this pandemic, global warming and inequality.

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