Image: Duncan Cumming

Mike Davis finds the government playing catch-up with its pronouncements in the face of a devastating virus

This is not a hoax. This is for real. Britain, like the United States, Australia and Brazil has leaders in denial. Leaders with no conception of the scale of this pandemic or the need for international cooperation to defeat it. Ex-PM Gordon Brown made this point forcefully on BBC radio in highlighting that many of the major nations are led by populist nationalists who believe border closures and a retreat into national cocoons is the way to beat Covid-19. This is a global virus that transcends national boundaries. 

The coronavirus is the most devastating threat to health, livelihoods and life itself since the Second World War. It is unprecedented for anyone in the western world under the age of 75.

As George Monbiot has written, these are the same leaders who downplay climate breakdown, ecological collapse, air and water pollution and inequality. 

The government’s sluggish response to coronavirus, first advocating herd immunity, then switching to containment and delay, is woefully inadequate. As Channel 4 reported, 98% of front line health workers believe the NHS does not have enough PPE (masks, Hazmat suits, gloves), testing equipment or ventilators. Staff levels have been cut to the bone over ten years of austerity. 

Despite this, a much higher level of testing, tracking personal contacts of those testing positive, then isolating and treating, is critical.

One of the lessons from China, where it appears a rising curve of infections and deaths has been turned – particularly in Wuhan city, the epicentre of the original infection – is that a total lockdown for at least a month helped turn the wave. Neighbouring democratic states like South Korea appear to have achieved a similar result with a more voluntary approach to lockdown.

This is a fast moving situation but all the significant government decisions have been made after key agents had already acted. Cancellation of mass sporting events including league football came after most clubs suspended play. The enforced closure of pubs, restaurants, and entertainment venues came after many had voluntarily closed. Similarly the closure of schools came when many were facing up to 50% absence of staff and pupils.

What is becoming clear is that social isolation and strict distancing is an essential part of the strategy to defeat this silent invisible enemy. China has surveillance teams while Germany has tracing teams to locate clusters of those infected, following much more extensive testing then treating.

This comes very uneasily to a government composed of ideologues of the small state, advocates of private over public, markets over state planning. But without a huge state-directed drive, empowered and appropriately financed local government, supplemented by voluntary and faith organisations, the virus will not be suppressed nor will our social fabric be protected. 

On the economic front, the £330bn Chancellor Rishi Sunak has set aside to assist companies – the three-month mortgage holiday and business rates suspension – will not work if businesses see no way to pay back the loans or if the support is selective. As Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have highlighted, renters also need help as do the five million self-employed and the millions in the gig economy. If jobs are lost income is gone. There must be enforcement of the ruling that evictions either in the public or private sector must not occur.

Workers made redundant cannot afford to wait months for emergency payments or for the five-week period for Universal Credit. They will need immediate benefit support: direct payments.

There are limits to the wartime analogy. We do not need a maximisation of production, boosting GDP. We cannot gather together in some kind of Blitz spirit. This pandemic requires isolation and lockdown of cities and communities. The online world will be the centre for social communication.

The new Emergency Powers Bill (with over 300 printed pages and 87 clauses) grants draconian powers to the police to detain anyone suspected of being infected with a £1000 fine for refusing to self-isolate. It includes powers to shut airports and borders, powers to prosecute for interrupting food supplies. Many other powers are conveyed on local authorities regarding death management and commandeering space. The government has agreed to provide for six monthly reviews rather than two years.

People need clarity and consistency from the government. Few can have much confidence of that right now.

Chartist will be commissioning articles on a wide range of issues that this unprecedented crisis presents. The importance of the democratic state. The need for well funded public services. A Universal Basic Income. The meaning of social solidarity. The dimensions of the imminent global recession. The green revolution that could emerge from the crisis.

The world has been turned upside down. Democratic socialists, radical greens and many others who have been working for an alternative to neoliberal capitalism would not have wished a change to come through a devastating viral pandemic. But this is the reality. Global capitalism is collapsing. Let it be a reaffirmation of our common humanity, a spur to cooperation and social solidarity rather than a descent into selfish nationalism and survival of the richest. 

Public Health England’s guidance on social distancing is available here.

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