Zero Covid is possible

It is possible to eliminate coronavirus. Through serious nationwide action that puts public health above profits, the infection rate can be brought down to zero. So why is demand for a Zero Covid strategy so low?

Protestors wave flags at a socially distanced May Day protest in Athens
Athens: May day protest 2020

The target upon which we should set our sights is nothing less than Zero Covid: elimination of all cases of virus from the UK. To justify this goal we need nothing more than the fact of the profoundly disproportionate effects, both direct and indirect, that the pandemic has had. It has exposed scales of vulnerabilities in our society, along lines of race, gender and class, and exacerbated them.

Yet isn’t Zero Covid an impossibility in anything other than a nation ‘on pause’, sealed off under lockdown? People and goods move around, enter and exit the country. Any coherent strategy would need to work to maintain this status on the understanding that it will continually be breached. Zero Covid aims to reduce community transmissions to zero, then suppress any outbreaks.

There is a greater reason why a long-term Zero Covid strategy is both so necessary and so hard to achieve, which goes to the root of how we came to be in this situation in the first place. As Andreas Malm reminds us in his recent book Corona, Climate. Chronic Emergency, scientists have been pointing to the increasing risk of viruses, carried benignly by wild animals, finding their way into human populations for many years. Malm identifies four inter-relating causes. Firstly, deforestation of tropical and sub-tropical zones, home to the majority of the world’s land-habiting non-human organisms both in variety and absolute terms, for, primarily, beef, palm oil and timber. As these zones contract virus-carrying animals are displaced and brought into proximity with humans. Secondly, the international livestock industry, which is increasingly massive in scale and global in scope and which has seen many outbreaks of infection across animal species, including avian flu. Thirdly, the trade in wild animals (including bushmeat, which Malm persuasively argues is primarily a problem of luxury dining rather than some cultural trait). Lastly, the speed at which people and goods are able to move around the globe: air transport means pathogens can easily find new host populations before exhausting existing ones. Over the last two decades or so there have been a number of localised outbreaks of zoonotic (transmitted from animal to human) viruses, some of whose names once briefly dominated new headlines: SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, Nipah.

So Zero Covid is, in fact, bigger than Covid. Our strategy needs to be based on an acknowledgement that human action upon wild nature in the interests of commodity production and profit is the cause. It needs to both seriously address the underlying reasons for it as well as develop an infrastructure to mitigate the current pandemic.

If, as I have argued, we understand the effort to contain Covid – and potentially other viruses in the future – as a long-haul, the lack of seriousness of the Tory government in the face of the crisis becomes even more clear. Delays, confused messages and shifts in policy (wavering between partially effective, ineffective and downright counter-productive) mean we are not much further forward than in the spring. In one important respect, we are further back: the net effect of government policy – in particular the half-measures of the Job Retention Scheme and its successor, the Job Support Scheme – has been to force people into individual choices about which risks to take in order to maintain their livelihoods. The Johnson regime has persistently portrayed the steps taken to alleviate the pandemic as obstacles to be overcome as quickly as possible, in order to ‘get the economy moving again’.

It is therefore unsurprising that some of us who are facing un-or under-employment and having to fall back on a benefits system which provides nowhere near enough to live on incorrectly see Covid restrictions as the problem. Newly-felt precarity, combined with on the one hand ineffectual or even disastrous (such as the opening of university campuses) measures, and on the other wishful thinking such as Boris Johnson’s July claim of a return to normality by Christmas, have caused a resistance to further measures to develop.

The short-termism so typical of Johnson’s government has had catastrophic repercussions, and will likely continue to do so. Yet a threat to the rule of Johnson and his allies comes from within the ranks of the Tory party itself, based in large part on MPs’ fear of fatally damaging their standing with voters in areas where harsher local lockdowns, widely viewed as ineffective and perceived as unfair, could be imposed. 42 Tory MPs rebelled against the government in the vote to create a three-tier lockdown system, halving the Government’s majority. Should the situation degenerate further this might become 60, then 80, and Johnson’s Parliamentary buffer would be gone.

A genuine alternative to the Government’s direction has not emerged from the Labour front bench. Keir Starmer continues to ‘put the government on notice’ but overall accepts the logic of ‘lockdown or economy’. Even if one accepts the profit motive this opposition is perversely short-termist, because the cost of repeated failed efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ in terms of the fall in GDP is likely to exceed that of implementing a plan aiming at elimination of the virus. Socialists know, however, that the market does not operate in a rational way. It’s this false either/or choice which must be challenged and broken if a radical change in the handling of the crisis is to come about.

One aspect of this challenge must be to intensify the pressure on the Government to hand contracts for Covid testing over to public bodies, taking them away from for-profit corporations like SERCO.

Another aspect is to build a coalition behind the proposals put forward by the Independent SAGE group, which brings together a wide range of medical and other scientific specialisms (including climate science). Indie SAGE have continually been responsive to Government policy shifts, shadowing the advice provided by the Government’s own SAGE body. Their emergency six-week plan for England in response to rising cases, hospitalisations and deaths crucially links the lifting of restrictions to the development of an expanded Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support (FTTIS) framework to replace the failing Test and Trace system. As their report states, ‘Isolation will not work unless people are supported to enable them to isolate’.

We need to view the fight against Covid, and other zoonotic viruses, as a series of challenges, some of which must by necessity be long-term ones: the development of a vaccine, and even understanding how the virus spreads. There will always be ‘unknown unknowns’. Yet significant steps have already been made in areas such as the remedial treatment of Covid patients. And the challenge of building an adequate FTTIS system poses no technical or logistical problems which cannot be overcome – the failure is purely a political one.

Links between the trade union movement and Indie SAGE have been made, and Richard Burgon of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs has worked with them and publicised their efforts. We should argue that organisations across the spectrum of the movement, from union and Labour Party branches to benefits and housing campaigns to Mutual Aid groups, should get behind Indie SAGE’s proposals and force them onto the agenda. The involvement of local bodies that have people’s trust is well-understood as vital to any successful public health initiative, and such groups would have their own input into the strategy. In order to manage any future outbreaks it would be necessary to provide safe, non-criminalised routes for migrants to enter the country, so migrant solidarity networks would have a role to play. Yet such a coalition would still require a catalyst to launch it centre-stage. Such a spark could come from one of many sources – students, private renters or over safety at work, for example. Our role should be to build a level of preparedness for this spark which stands in stark contrast to the Government’s lack of fitness for its task.

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