Class struggle against Covid

We are facing a second wave of Covid-19 due to the reckless drive for profit of the capitalist class. Mass action from below is the key to stopping the virus – and remaking society in the interests of the majority.

Tate protesters opposing redundancies
Tate workers protesting mass redundancies. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr

It’s clear that a ‘second wave’ of Covid-19 infections is underway. Each day brings thousands of new infections recorded; reported deaths are still low, but will naturally lag behind infection rate by an interval of two or three weeks. This disaster is hitting a population which has already suffered over 65,000 excess deaths, heavily concentrated among disabled people and among people of colour. Deaths so far have been caused in part by the virus itself, in part by its compound effects (such as stress and disruption to routine health and care services), and in part by the government’s woeful mishandling of various aspects of the crisis.

Equally clear is the cause of this second wave: from the earliest possible moment, the government pushed doggedly to ‘reopen the economy’, forcing tens of millions of people back into workplaces, schools, universities, and public transport systems. The winding-down of the furlough scheme, the tacit encouragement given to bosses to illegally sack reluctant workers, and the expensive public (mis)information campaigns proselytising a ‘return to work’, are all examples of this. Not only that, but the government incentivised a mass return to restaurants, bars and cafés through its absurd ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme, employing both the carrot and stick to push forward a return to old spending and working habits. Over a period of months, local and national guidelines on social distancing have changed so frequently, and been communicated so badly, and undermined so thoroughly by the government’s drive towards economic ‘reopening’, that compliance became impossible even for those who were determined to adhere to official guidelines. A fortnight of half-hearted new England-wide rules is now on the cards, ‘to avoid any extended lockdown’.

For all the blustering talk of being guided by mysterious ‘experts’, the government ignored the crystal-clear warnings of the Independent SAGE group, who have spelled out what measures were necessary to make it safe to reopen workplaces. In any case, the result of the government’s course of action was easily predictable without reference to academic expertise. In fact, not just predictable, but predicted – teachers in the National Education Union told the government clearly that it wasn’t safe to return without stringent safety measures, organising around the ‘Five Tests’ for reopening schools. Their objections were met with coordinated campaigns of bullying and harassment from the government’s bulldogs in the right-wing media. The same outlets are now trying to redirect blame onto a whole pantheon of scapegoats, including young people (accused of ‘illegal raves’), Muslims, and political protesters.

Put simply, there are two reasons for the rolling catastrophe of Britain’s Covid-19 response. The first is a remarkably lazy, myopic, and corrupt government executive, coddled by media sycophants and emboldened by the recent defeat of the left in a highly manipulated General Election. From this, there stems the failure to handle PPE supply chains, the callous negligence that cut a swathe through elderly people in care homes, and the naked cronyism that has scuppered the government’s flagship privatised testing programme. The so-called ‘NHS Test and Trace’ programme is, in reality, being run for profit by out-sourcing giants Serco and Sitel, under the supervision of former TalkTalk executive (and Tory Baroness) Dido Harding. Meanwhile, the actual processing of tests has been entrusted, in large part, to private mega-labs operated by companies such as accountancy firm Deloitte, which have likewise failed to provide the services contracted.

But however infuriating these failures may be, the problem goes wider. Other states, including some which dodged these obstacles far better than Britain, are also facing Covid-19 resurgences. Any capitalist state, in the end, lives or dies by its ability to maintain the accumulation of capital. To achieve this, the population must be put to work, and preferably in a coordinated, connected way, that can only partly be recreated by Zoom and communications tools. Some businesses can be run on remote home-based work; others can’t; others still are directly dependent on other people commuting and travelling to work (as demonstrated in the sudden precarity of café chain Pret a Manger).

We must not fall into the trap of believing that there is zero-sum trade-off between saving jobs and saving lives. The government would like us to believe that these two imperatives are in balance against one another – that we must either accept massive job losses as the price of preventing Covid deaths, or accept Covid deaths as the price of ‘saving the economy’ and preventing massive layoffs. But this is based on the idea that a break-neck race for maximum profits is the only possible way that economic activity can be organised. In fact, the needs of the broad mass of the population (keeping jobs in place, affording our daily lives, and keeping a roof over our heads) can be met simultaneously with suppressing and then eliminating Covid – but only if we the redirect the economy towards serving human need, rather than corporate self-interest. Moreover, rather than accepting that Covid will continue to circulate at some level until ‘herd immunity’ is achieved or a vaccine invented, we can and should aim to eradicate the virus and achieve a zero-Covid situation.

NHS workers protesting over avoidable deaths of staff. Photo: Steve Eason/Flickr

A programme to safeguard livelihoods while eliminating the virus is not difficult to imagine. Such a programme could also be the occasion for shifting resources towards other vital social needs: combating climate change, improving healthcare, building housing, and providing care and education. We could keep non-essential workplaces closed, providing direct state support to workers (rather than the highly imperfect furlough scheme that relies on bosses to relay these payments), and restricting employers from laying off employees. Any workers who can work from home should have the right to choose to do so. This should last until a vaccine is developed or a zero-Covid situation is achieved. Robust safety measures, including adequate PPE and generous sick leave could be enforced for those still working in workplaces. If businesses that provide socially useful functions go bankrupt, they can be taken into public ownership – at far lower cost than the government’s existing policy of lavishing public money to prop up privatised companies. If business and sectors go bankrupt which have long been harmful to society, such as the aviation industry, they could likewise be nationalised – and then radically downsized or phased out, with workers retrained and redeployed into socially beneficial jobs in climate, care, housing and public services.

This programme is demanding but not impossible. The scale of state organisation needed would still be just a fraction of what the British state mustered to protect its own power and standing in two world wars, and the resources required are not prohibitive when compared, for example, with the costs of the so-called ‘nuclear deterrent’. The problem is not practicality in a general sense, but rather the government’s determined hostility to any move which would redistribute power to the majority of the population and put a brake on capitalist exploitation. Meanwhile, Labour leader Keir Starmer is not concerned with attacking the government over its callousness and corruption, but with showcasing his ‘loyal’ approach to opposition, endearing his party to ruling-class business interests, and waging a ruthless war of attrition against the left wing of his own party. 

In other words, neither Johnson or Starmer will ever willingly implement any part of the programme sketched out above. But we know that they will offer concessions if they are forced to do so. The Tory government’s introduction of the furlough scheme (flawed as it is) was a response to the near-certainty of mass unrest if steps weren’t taken to protect workers’ jobs. The temporary ban on evictions was introduced and then extended by a Tory government made up in large part by landlords. The ban is scheduled to end on Sunday, but it is easy to imagine another extension if renters’ organising succeeds in making evictions impractical to carry out. While organising against each eviction, we must demand the ban be made permanent, along with the housing of homeless people. 

If we really mean to stop Covid and repulse the economic onslaught against the working class, we need to create ‘facts on the ground’ and then let politicians catch up with them, rather than lobbying Parliament for better policies. We must exert power directly over our workplaces, via strikes, walk-outs or occupations. Workplaces must be forced to become safe, or else close down while offering support to workers. Some activity of this kind was underway already during March, and was a large part of the reason why the government reluctantly moved to introduce a (partial) lockdown in the first place. Large walk-outs took place, not only at unionised workplaces, but also among un-unionised workers with little prior record of workplace organisation. Socialists will need to work hard within and outside union structures to ensure solidarity and responsiveness to any struggle that breaks out anywhere, fending off attempts by the government to divide and rule the workforce. Likewise, as job cuts accelerate, we need to argue for solidarity between the still-employed, the recently-unemployed, and those, including pensioners and many disabled people, who have been reliant on benefits in the long term.

We must also keep a keen look-out for any other eruptions of social struggle against the government in the weeks and months to come. The most admirable and inspiring development of recent months has been the enormous Black Lives Matter protests which spread from the US to the UK and around the world and are still ongoing. In Britain the anti-racist movement has been jump-started, and we have seen other large spontaneous events like the nationwide wave of protest over NHS pay. It isn’t always possible to say in advance when and how the anger of broad layers of the population might erupt, but it is possible to be receptive and responsive as soon as signs of this appear.

Many of us have been battered and exhausted by the events of recent months. We have suffered losses and bereavements; job losses and debt; police repression and surveillance; months of anxiety, isolation and vertigo as the world has dissolved around us. But colossal social struggles are still raging and heightening, and we cannot opt out of them. In the UK and across the world, capitalism has no way forward except at our expense: our lives, our health, our jobs and homes, our wellbeing. We can and must fight back – demanding zero Covid, zero evictions, and zero lay-offs. Class struggle against Covid is the only way forward.

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