Covid-19 and the sickness of capitalism
By Frieda Park
What is this “economy” that we are told needs to be protected in the coronavirus pandemic at the expense of ordinary people’s lives? What is the purpose of economic activity if it is not the welfare of people? These questions have arisen starkly out of this crisis as they did from the financial crash of 2008. Governments are terrified of people losing faith in capitalism and are being forced to respond in ways which clash with their underlying belief in the gods of the free market and individualist self-sufficiency. But these Emperor’s new clothes do not conceal the naked truth of capital whose principle purpose is to generate profit. This truth has been further confirmed by the reluctant responses of governments which have trailed behind the growing crisis and failed to deliver what was needed by front-line staff, patients and the population at large. Even when they did decide to act it was with a lack of commitment to do what was needed to halt the spread of the disease and look after people.
The other area which has had a spotlight shone on it is that many only just survived, even before the coronavirus outbreak. This has become evident as people are put out of work. Precarious workers in the gig economy have even fewer protections with no sick pay and employers who take no responsibility for their welfare. Then there are homeless people, asylum-seekers and refugees, those reliant on food-banks, older people who were already isolated, people in debt, small businesses living from hand to mouth…the list goes on. These are literally millions of people. Millions of people whose lives were made precarious by neo-liberalism and whose survival is now threatened.
SURVIVAL OF THE FATTEST
You may be a Prince of the Realm or Prime Minister, anyone can catch coronavirus, but the impact of the disease is worse if you are at the bottom of the heap. Once recovered, Prince Charles and Boris Johnson’s lives will carry on much as they did before, not so if you have lost your job or were struggling to get by in the first place. The effects of the pandemic will affect the well-off and the less well-off unequally.
You cannot work at home if you are a factory, delivery, retail, hospitality or transport worker or if you work caring for and supporting people. Being able to work from home therefore benefits disproportionately the better off who can keep their jobs and incomes and isolate themselves more effectively from the virus.
The ability of children and young people to continue their education at home is also determined by wealth. Private schools and their pupils have greater access to technology which will allow structured learning to take place. Educational inequalities will be exacerbated further and carried on into adulthood and that is not to mention the other benefits that school offers young people. For some it is a place of safety where they are warm, fed and cared for.
The more cramped a family’s living space is, then the greater will be the stresses placed on families and the greater the likelihood of passing the virus on. We are instructed to stay at home – but what if your home is the street?
Inevitably working class people also have fewer or no reserves to tide them through a difficult patch. More than half of the poorest households in Britain have no savings. Nearly half a million people claimed Universal Credit in the nine days to March 24th 2020 and in three weeks 1.2 million people made claims.
Structurally the dice were already loaded against the poorest in the coronavirus pandemic, and in favour of the richest, ensuring the survival of the fattest. And this does not even begin to count the impact on the poorest nations in the world, those crowded into refugee camps and imprisoned on the Gaza strip.
IN THE HERD TOGETHER?
All of the above would have held true regardless of how the crisis was manged, but the Tory government’s woeful response makes things very much worse. It will cause hardship to many thousands of people with unnecessary suffering and deaths. No matter Johnson appearing on TV flanked by neatly folded union flags and evoking of the spirit of the war, the reality on the ground tells a very different story. We are not in this together.
The British, and most other governments, refused to take on board the evidence of what works in stemming the spread of coronavirus. What works was what was done in China: the key elements being strict isolation, tracking contacts and mass testing. Governments have remained concerned that this approach would have serious economic consequences – as though hundreds of thousands of people falling sick and many dying wouldn’t. Despite knowing at the outset of the crisis what had worked in China, the British government took no notice and adopted a “herd immunity” strategy. This strategy was born out of pandemic modelling for influenza, but it was flawed. Covid-19 is a new coronavirus, which we knew nothing about, and which is not a flu virus. It is more infectious and more deadly than flu, there is no pre-existing immunity and there is no vaccine for it. But based on this model the government believed that the virus should be allowed to run its course to build herd immunity. Even if it had been valid it still callously factored in a number of deaths. As Johnson said we must be prepared to see our loved ones die, or as Dominic Cummings, reportedly characterised the government strategy “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
This raises the question of whether the government was acting purely in line with scientific advice, as it said it was, and by implication doing the best it could. Science, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of material reality, is a human activity and is subject to all kinds of biases and competing interpretations. It is not politically neutral and can be used selectively to support particular ends. To what extent in this situation did the Tories get the scientific advice they wanted? There is a remarkably close fit between the herd immunity strategy and maintaining business as usual in the economy. Officials are never, these days, appointed to be critical of their bosses, they are appointed to tell them more or less what they want to hear. It will be so even with scientists. In all likelihood, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer who appeared with Johnson at press conferences believed in the advice they were giving, however, that did not necessarily make it impartial and it certainly did not make it correct. Their presence at press conferences, however, reinforced the message of apparent expertise and objectivity and was as much a prop for Johnson as the union jacks.
The herd immunity approach began to unravel pretty quickly. It became apparent that it would not just be a few unproductive pensioners, who were in any case a burden to the NHS, care services and the benefits system who would die. Hundreds of thousands would die. And the thing about plagues is that they are no respecters of class boundaries. The rich might be in a better position to survive, but they are going to get it too and, yes, some of them will die. How ironic that Johnson, Cummings, Health Secretary Hancock and Prince Charles all got the disease - an uncomfortable reminder for them and us that they are part of the human race.
Having been forced to change tack the government managed the situation incompetently. Measures to help people were only announced at the point that major problems arose. Planning and provision for the NHS lagged woefully behind the pace of the virus and behind what other countries were doing. The government seemed to be unable and/or unwilling to anticipate, plan and deliver – not surprising when you have spent your whole life thinking that state intervention, public services and planning are bad and that the market, the anarchy of capitalism, works. They do not know or appreciate how things actually happen in the real world. The press has suddenly discovered battalions of “heroes” saving the country. The people who have, in fact, been the fabric of our lives 24/7, 365 days a year every year. They are not just medical staff but working class people in supermarkets, admin roles, transport, cleaning, deliveries and a hundred jobs that went unnoticed before. Strange no one is out clapping for stockbrokers or fund managers.
The total failure to provide adequate protective equipment for front line staff, and the failure to get testing for those staff, never mind mass testing, up and running has been a disgrace. Weeks in, testing was still discussed in relation to getting NHS staff back to work and not as a key element of controlling the spread of the virus in the population at large.
Care of older people and the protection of staff who work with them has been another disgrace. Older people with symptoms of coronavirus are being treated as though they were living in their own homes and infected people are being left to let the virus run its course. But they are not living at home, they are living in institutions with many other vulnerable people who are going on to catch the disease and many are dying. Just as they are not being valued or protected neither are the staff who work with them who, if they are lucky, have only the most basic protective equipment. And then there are the old people who have other conditions being shunted out of hospital to hotels to be cared for by non-medical staff.
There have been many, many reports of workers being badly treated by employers and having to fight for basic rights at work in this crisis. Like the notorious Sports Direct and its boss Mike Ashley who initially tried to keep its stores open after lock down, but even when they were forced to close, was insisting that store staff still come into work. There have been major concerns about the conditions for warehouse staff across companies which raises the question whether the goods they are supplying are really necessary.
Financial support to individuals will be inadequate in many cases to meet their outgoings – furloughed workers are guaranteed 80% of their wages, but that discounts bonuses which many rely on as a part of their regular income. Many are in debt and who only spends 80% of their income in the month? Universal Credit was already not fit for purpose and the DWP is now struggling to process the mountain of new applications.
Loans directed at saving small and medium sized businesses have been funneled through the Tories’ friends – the banks. Many business owners found them inaccessible. After complaints that some banks refused the loans if the business or the owner had assets which could be used as collateral against an ordinary loan, forcing them to take on expensive debt, the scheme was changed. This will allegedly make the loans more available. But even if businesses can get the cash it will not arrive for weeks. It has been estimated that up to a million small businesses may collapse. Looking around the streets in your town you may wonder how many coffee shops, hairdressers and other independent stores will re-open.
To be fair to the Tories the Scottish government and the other devolved administrations have followed the government line with no dissent from their central strategy and only some minor variations in policy. Despite health being a devolved power Scotland’s record on delivering care, protective equipment etc is every bit as bad as England’s. Nicola Sturgeon appears day after day on TV with the same waffle and excuses as the UK government to try to distract from these failures. The most egregious example of anyone thinking they were above the herd was in fact Catherine Calderwood, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, who thought it fine to lecture the plebs about staying at home while she broke the rules by visiting her second home during the lockdown. At first she declined to step down and was defended by Sturgeon.
THE BLAME GAME
The other failed part of the Tory strategy was to emphasise individual over collective action and state intervention. This led to bizarre mixed messages and people not knowing what was expected of them. Individuals were blamed for government failings and we were encouraged to blame each other instead of holding the Tories to account.
We were instructed not to go to pubs and restaurants, even while they remained open for business. Their owners were expected to sit in their deserted premises, order food and supplies, pay staff and be unable to claim on any insurance that might have covered them if there had been an enforced shut down.
We were told to go out and exercise, but initially unclear about what that meant, people were shamed for heading out to the hills to go walking.
We were told that people with underlying health conditions were more at risk, but the numbers receiving letters from the government telling them that they must strictly self-isolate is far less than the numbers at increased risk. Levels of risk are being down-graded. So what should you do if you have diabetes, severe asthma or any other problematic ailment but have not had a letter from the government? We were told we should only go to work if it was essential and safe to do so. But what if your boss takes a different view from you on that? Building work was allowed to continue on non-essential sites with workers being put at risk in their workplace and in travelling to work.
We are told not to panic buy. But with no system in place to support people if they couldn’t get out to shop, stocking up on some essentials in a rapidly changing situation where you and your family may need to completely self-isolate for a week or two seemed sensible. Supermarket shelves were quickly emptied because they use just-in-time delivery systems and do not keep big stocks of goods, especially the bulky ones like toilet rolls.
We are left to work out what our best guess is. One person may decide that they are willing to take risks, but they are not just risking themselves in the situation, they are risking other people too. Individuals cannot shoulder the responsibilities of society.
Johnson is fond of invoking wartime analogies to make himself look Churchillian. He has failed to recognise that the wartime effort to defeat fascism relied not just on individuals playing their part but on a virtual command economy with food rationing, strict standards for production of basic goods etc. He seems also to have forgotten that after the war the British people kicked Churchill out of office and elected a reforming Labour government which brought us the NHS (which the Tories voted against), other pillars of the welfare state and a massive programme of council house building.
SHIELDING THE BANKS
There has been a clear effort to protect the financial sector and big business – what the Tories regard as the economy. Indeed banks are likely to benefit as they funnel government guaranteed loans to businesses. Struggling companies will have to pay the cash back once the crisis is over at the same time as they are trying to re-build. By delaying government enforcement of closures many felt they had to act to protect themselves by, for example, cancelling holidays, but in the absence of government advice not to go they will have been unable to claim on their insurance. Likewise businesses that were forced to shut up shop earlier. Governments are borrowing billions to throw at the problems they are trying to deal with. This is debt that they will have to re-pay to the money markets and financial institutions when this is over. Other big businesses close to Tory hearts will find their recovery supported better than the local coffee shop. They have already gone out of their way to keep construction going and expect a bailout for airlines.
NO GOING BACK
We do not know how badly this pandemic will affect us or when it will end. It has exposed capitalism’s inability to respond effectively to major threats to humanity – it is not that long ago since we were debating its inability to tackle Climate Change.
If the banks have to be repaid then who is going to re-pay them? The Tories will certainly want to shift the burden to ordinary people and small businesses. Let’s see the banks make the sacrifices instead. No going back to austerity, to an underfunded, privatised and marketised NHS with badly paid staff working in debilitating compliance cultures. No more nurses going to foodbanks or junior doctors forced to strike over unsafe contracts. No more gig economy and precarious lives.
No more forgetting that we, the people, are the heroes of our society and should not be made to pay the price for Tory incompetence and capitalism’s failures. We have the skills, knowledge and commitment that make the real economy work. That must be recognised and valued. We are social beings whose lives depend on us acting together, not the individualists of capitalist myth. No more worshiping the free-market whose inability to meet the needs of people is tenuous at the best of times, but in a crisis spells disaster.