Not one more of us will be sacrificed

The UK government is exploiting public frustration with an inconsistent and repressive ‘lockdown’ to justify pressuring more people into unsafe workplaces while launching a massive redistribution of wealth towards the rich, reinforcing the inequalities that made the pandemic so lethal while failing to prevent millions more from facing the dole.

rs21 members argue that every death matters, that deaths and job losses are not inevitable and that as we can’t rely on government or employers, we will have to rely on ourselves and each other to fight for our lives and our livelihoods.

A younger and an older darker skinned woman hang laundry to dry on neighbouring balconies (illustration)
Image by Leila Lesage

The Tory government’s response has been callous, incompetent and put profits first at every stage. Their ‘lockdown’ came after the public, workers and employers had already implemented much of it themselves. It was always half a lockdown – leaving it up to employers whether to keep most non-essential workplaces open, failing to provide adequate sick pay for everyone off sick or isolating, and failing to address the decades of decimation of health and safety enforcement (‘red tape’). The government failed to requisition manufacturing capacity to provide adequate PPE to essential workers, while failing to address the scourge of casual work in the care sector, leading to health and social care workers becoming vectors for infecting the very people they cared for and suffering terrible infection rates themselves. Millions fell down the cracks in financial support schemes which prioritised keeping larger businesses on life support. The government tried to rush a return of more kids to school to provide little education but more childcare to force more parents back to work. They failed to put in place functional systems for testing, tracing and isolating cases.

The very word ‘lockdown’ indicates much of the problem. It has its origins with prisoners being confined to their cells. Rather than educating and empowering people to keep ourselves and each other safe, the police were seen as the key to ‘enforcement’. Predictably, if the only tools you have are truncheons and tasers, every problem looks like a threat to be confronted with violence – particularly if it involves Black, Asian, young and poor people – the very people most likely to be living in overcrowded houses, relying on public transport, and in jobs without job security or sick pay where working from home isn’t an option. People didn’t largely do the right thing for fear of arrest, but because they understood the risks, were enabled to act safely, and wanted to avoid killing their family, friends and others in their communities.

Despite all the government’s failures, we succeeded in reducing the reproduction rate ‘R’ to significantly below 1, and the number of cases and deaths gradually fell from its peak. Resistance from workers, particularly school staff, parents, and the good sense of much of the public have so far held off the second wave. But we are still seeing around 80 deaths a day, the infection rate had stopped falling and appears to be rising again. Every reopening of business will cost lives and increase the risk of local or national tipping points where R rises and there is a rapid explosion of cases, as in Leicester.

We weren’t allowed out to socialise outdoors with masks and distancing, but were economically compelled to go to non-essential workplaces that offered ample opportunities for infection. Our physical and mental health was not the priority while millions face rising debt, poverty and hunger.

Understandably, many people are sick of how our lives have shrunk during the pandemic and chafe against the restrictions. When so many are working with hundreds from different households all week, it’s hardly unreasonable to want to see a few mates outside. Early in the pandemic the government tried to convince us that other people were the problem. Now they want us to reopen more of the economy and blame each other for the second wave of death. They want us to feel that it’s a choice between risking our lives and our livelihoods, and that people are choosing to put the economy first. At the same, they hope to create a sense of inevitability about mass unemployment – that it is happening despite massive government interventions.

Thousands of deaths and millions of job losses are avoidable

Imagine the reaction if this many people died in terrorist incidents in a year, never mind every day. Each one is a person. Every death matters. They are not inevitable.

A recent report from the Independent SAGE committee explains the difference between strategies of control (maintaining cases at a low level indefinitely), elimination (stopping new infections within a country, preventing or dealing with imported cases), and eradication (no infections worldwide, such as with smallpox and polio vaccination programmes). In contrast, Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer said at the Downing Street press conference on 23 June:

I would be surprised and delighted if we weren’t in this current situation through the winter and into next spring. I think then let’s regroup and work out where we are. But I expect there to be a significant amount of coronavirus circulating at least until that time

Independent SAGE say:

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’ (i.e. their current quite high but not catastrophic levels). Independent SAGE believes that this is not acceptable, that we should not give up. Thousands of lives could be saved over the next year by a renewed effort to further suppress the virus.

They urge a strategy of elimination, with an explicit recommendation for the involvement of the public in shaping what a strategy for achieving it would look like. The Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Northern Ireland ‘already have very few deaths and very small numbers of new positive cases. They have the virus under control and are well placed to achieve elimination of the virus’ and they urge England and Wales to take the measures to achieve elimination – which would ‘allow all social distancing measures to be lifted, schools to be fully open, the hospitality and entertainment industries to reopen fully, revitalisation of the economy and a sense of much-needed normality for the population’.

This is inspiring stuff, and raises hopes that thousands of lives could be saved, but accepts the idea of a spectrum between ‘lockdown’ and ‘relaxation’. If we want to win mass support for elimination and save lives, we have to point to the possibility of choosing measures to control infection that prioritise mental health and happiness over business – and this has to be linked to tackling income insecurity – which means no return to the ‘normality’ that got us in this mess in the first place.

An integral part of a publicly controlled elimination strategy must look at public health as a whole. At the beginning of the lockdown, much of the NHS reorganised into emergency mode focusing on tackling the Covid-19 crisis, which left those with other life-threatening, terminal or chronic conditions without treatment. This has contributed tens of thousands to the number of ‘excess deaths’ in the spring months and left many more in suffering and uncertainty. These services are now slowly resuming, but the backlog and waiting lists are still lengthy. In a just recovery from this crisis, the health service has to be restored and expanded in its entirety, rather than simply extending its emergency response.

Wealth flooding up, not trickling down

Government interventions during the pandemic have been a massive upward redistribution of wealth. Robert Brenner has explored this in detail for the US, where ‘between 18 March 2020 and 4 June 2020, the wealth of US billionaires increased by $565 billion, reaching the level of $3.5 trillion in total, up 19 per cent in the interval’.

While much of the criticism of the UK government’s mini-budget package announced on 8 July focused on the fact that it was 200 times smaller than Roosevelt’s New Deal, there has been less comment about even bigger issues. The aid package is not about a green recovery, despite government rhetoric. The green homes grant aims to insulate 650,000 homes, less than half the number than the Warm Front Grant scheme scrapped by George Osborne. It shovels our taxes to big business and the rich while neglecting the poorest. The government has taken the pro-business partnership talk from union and Labour leaders and run with it. They have consistently demanded more support for business as the way to help workers. The Tories have used this to justify ‘trickle-down economics’, taken to its logical conclusion when help for impoverished hospitality workers came in the form of crumbs from the table of subsidised diners. Businesses get lavish payouts while Universal Credit gets cut back and benefit sanctions restored. Second homeowners get grants to do up their properties and stamp duty is suspended for buying properties up to £500,000 (homes up to £125,000 were already exempt, or £300,000 for first-time buyers) while renters get no relief and evictions are due to resume.

On jobs too, the government is subsidising employers (whether they need it or not) hoping the benefits will trickle down to workers – with VAT cuts for hospitality and entertainment, and a bonus to employers for not sacking people whose wages the government has been subsidising through the furlough scheme.

As the furlough scheme winds down, we can expect unemployment to soar: the government bailouts are there to prop up failing markets, not support workers suffering from their failure. From aviation to hospitality, higher education to local authorities – and even the NHS – we face a jobs onslaught. Employers are also seeking to exploit the crisis to worsen pay and conditions, change working practices and intensify work.

Let’s be clear: there are alternatives. During the 2008 financial crisis governments bailed out financial institutions when their loans turned bad, rather than bailing out people who couldn’t pay their debts. Bad debts could have been bought up at a tiny fraction of their value and written off. Similar options apply now. The Tories objected to any nationalisation plans by pointing to the cost. If the government stopped shovelling cash to businesses to keep them afloat, many could be taken over for a pittance. Important services such as trains and buses would be losing fortunes without government subsidy and could be taken over for a song. Industries such as aviation that need to be closed to cut carbon emissions could be taken over and money spent on retraining workers into jobs with a future rather than bailing out union-busting bosses. Debt laden private care homes that can’t afford safe working could be taken into public ownership. Landlords with bad debt could be a source of new council housing, after years when they have snaffled it up under right to buy.

Rather than facing a choice between lives and livelihoods, we face a government that offers us neither, and need to fight for both. We know that poverty, zero-hour contracts, inequality, racism, overcrowded housing, homelessness, lack of sick pay, lack of unionisation and job insecurity all contributed to the impact of the pandemic. The government’s response will make these things worse, increasing the impact of a second wave of infection.

Resistance

The health and poverty catastrophes may be avoidable by government, but nobody expects a Tory government to avoid them. They are vicious, callous, divided, incompetent and shambolic – bounced around by events, resistance, their bigoted base and their big business backers. It will be up to us to avoid these disasters – by organising and fighting back in our workplaces and communities. Key workers have a vital part to play in using their moral authority and new-found appreciation of their own importance to society to demand no return to a failed normal.

Just as at the start of the pandemic, workers need to assert themselves to resist unsafe working. We should be demanding that every employer updates its risk assessment in light of the recognition by the World Health Organisation (WHO) of airborne transmission, and of the specific risks to BAME people. This means a focus on handwashing, surface cleaning and distancing is not enough. Indoor locations with poor ventilation can leave droplets containing the coronavirus hanging in the air for hours. Where possible this means staying out of workplaces, particularly indoor ones. Good ventilation and reducing the density and turnover of people are key factors. If face coverings are justified to reduce infection on public transport and in shops, why not in all workplaces? We shouldn’t allow employers to confuse such face coverings (designed to reduce the risk to others) with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) designed to protect the wearer, which must be of a higher specification. PPE is always the last resort in the hierarchy of controls. Safety is a powerful issue for organising even in unorganised workplaces.

Workers are also going to have to organise against job cuts. Where an employer proposes 20 or more dismissals in one establishment (usually a workplace) in any 90 day period they must consult workers collectively – even if there is no union recognition. Again, this is an opportunity to organise. For example, a large workplace one of our members works in had six union members and no collective organisation. After two months of organising against redundancies and around Covid-19 they now have 50 members, four elected union reps, weekly union meetings which about half the members attend, and are continuing to grow fast despite job losses. Union recognition is a realistic goal for the next few months.

But we have to recognise that the scale of the recession changes power dynamics. Many unions – from the tiny UVW to the giant Unite – have relied heavily on naming and shaming bad employers. But if hundreds of thousands are facing redundancy from thousands of employers, this won’t work. Even striking can seem futile if you don’t believe your employer can afford to keep you on. In a major economic recession, winning can often require creating a crisis for the government, not just your own employer.

In most cases, unions have responded to job losses with little more than a grumpy press release. This approach won’t do in the face of the recession heading our way. Neither will wringing our hands at the weakness of union organisation and saying ‘I wouldn’t start from here’. Over the last 40 years union organisation has been restricted to shrinking islands, and even there it has been hollowed out. Winning when your workplace faces closure or your employer is broke is likely to require bolder tactics such as workplace occupations. These are powerful even against workplace closure because they can tie up capital (buildings, equipment, goods) and become a focal point for pressure for government intervention – often demanding nationalisation and socially useful work. Last year the occupation of Harland and Wolff in Belfast achieved partial success. Previous occupations at BiFab and Vestas made even clearer links with the need for climate jobs. In the context of mass redundancies, one occupation could spark more and create a real crisis for government, which can hardly claim that government intervention is impossible now. Repressive public order and trespass legislation make occupations more difficult than in the 1970s, but they are still a powerful tactic. Could an initiative like Workforce promote organising, occupations and link workers considering occupying with people who could help develop Lucas Plan-like ideas for socially useful production?

We shouldn’t assume that the key resistance will come in workplaces, despite them being key sites of potential power. There are many other potential flashpoints which socialists need to be responsive to.

Many people have been building up unsustainable debt, and the eviction ban is currently due to end at the end of August. We don’t yet know how quickly the courts will handle cases once they reopen. There is also a tendency for landlords and banks to stagger evictions and repossessions to avoid depressing housing prices. We can anticipate a surge affecting renters in both the private and social housing sectors, as well as mortgage repossessions, even if we don’t know the pace.

Organisations such as ACORN, London Renters Union and Living Rent are expanding rapidly and training people up to resist evictions, but the crisis coming will require a response an order of magnitude greater to oppose evictions, challenge debt and demand adequate welfare benefits. Making links with unions could really help scale up, taking advantage of established networks and resources. This won’t be helped if unions respond to job and membership loss by managing decline – it is terrible news that Unite has suspended finance to local branches which now have to apply for money – a dangerous centralisation of resources and power. Renters groups mobilising support for the UNISON Tower Hamlets strike is a very positive development.

Thanks to the explosion of Mutual Aid groups during the pandemic, we now have a higher level of community organisation than at any time since at least the poll tax revolt. Some groups are rising to the challenges as the crisis unfolds, while others are degenerating into charity operations or unpaid service delivery arms for local authorities.

We face some major crunch points ahead. The Tories encouraged local authorities to spend whatever it took to tackle coronavirus, but haven’t covered the costs incurred. Many local authorities are likely to review their budgets in the autumn and propose major cuts at a time when their services are in high demand. Schools, colleges and universities are under pressure to return to full face to face teaching around the same time, just as the weather gets worse and seasonal colds and flu reappear.

The stakes are high as we respond to the health, economic and climate crises. We will have to fight the government and employers, and we won’t be able to rely on the leaders of unions, councils or the Labour Party. We have a fight on our hands: get stuck in.

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