May 18, 2021 | 15 minutes read | Tags: Coronavirus

Opening up to Covid

Despite all the talk of "reopening" and "things going back to normal," the reality is that nothing will ever be the same again. We can never magically return to a pre-covid world. The shadow cast over us by the coronavirus will blanket us for decades to come.

Opening up to Covid

Introduction

It has been over a year since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. It has also been just over a year since the British government reluctantly announced the first of a series of half-measure lockdowns, as part of a wider pandemic response that deliberately  channeled the virus into care homes, left people without the necessary support to isolate properly, and forced health and service workers to continue labouring under unsafe conditions.

As we wrote at the beginning of the pandemic last year, covid-19 has laid bare the inhumanity of capitalism. The past year has been one of enormous loss and struggle. Even as lockdown is lifted, with the government angling for a final and permanent "reopening," we must reckon with the fact that the capitalist state's approach, as ever, is fundamentally at odds with human life and wellbeing.

There are tensions present as we open up. We, the working class, have had to endure immense pressures during the pandemic. We have had to teach our children at home, bury our elderly relatives, save our disabled friends from the threat of a DNR death sentence being passed on their heads, scrimp and save, getting by on meagre amounts of money. This on top of the already existing weight of exploitation that is gendered and racialised, which tells us implicitly (but more often than not, explicitly) our lives are not useful unless we produce.


We are all weary from a pandemic which has lasted far longer than anyone could have imagined and many people are keen for a return to pre-lockdown life. We are encouraged by the falling numbers of deaths and hospitalisations as human lives must be held precious above all else.

However, this pressure and singular drive to open businesses and reduce or remove safety precautions is being driven by capitalist interests. It is not by us or for us. Opening up in a capitalist society will never be completely safe, just as lockdown in capitalist society has never been completely safe. This cannot be so in a society in which profit will always come before people.

We have written extensively on what should and could be done within capitalist constraints. As we emphasised there, ultimately coordination of the whole of society and the economy, which is only possible under socialism, is required to achieve safety. We see this as demonstrated by, for example, Cuba and Vietnam. It is only Socialism which has put humanity first. The pandemic has demonstrated more than ever before the possibilities and practicality of Socialism.

What does reopening mean?

It's worth reiterating briefly the current state of restrictions across Britain and changes to come.  From the 17 May there will be further relaxing of restrictions in England, Scotland, and Wales meaning that  larger venues like theatres and bingo halls will reopen and international travel will resume with travel to green list countries where there will be no need to quarantine on return. The ultimate aim is  that by 21June the majority of restrictions will end in England, Scotland and Wales.

From 17 May in England  people will be able to meet outdoors in groups of thirty. Six people or two households will be able to meet indoors. Social distancing with family and friends will be a matter of individual choice.

The Scottish islands except Skye will move to level one restrictions. Mainland Scotland (with the exception of Glasgow and Moray which will stay under level three restrictions for at least another week) will drop down to level two restrictions allowing socialising inside households, pubs and restaurants to be able to serve alcohol indoors until 10:30pm,  increased size of gatherings for indoor (maximum of 100 people) and outdoor events (maximum 250), larger gatherings allowed outdoors (eight people from a maximum of eight households) and larger gatherings allowed in indoor public places such as pubs (up to six people from three households).

In Wales up to six people from six households will be able to meet indoors in pubs, cafes and restaurants.

Boris Johnson has previously said  Britain will “continue on our path towards freedom” and his government insists dogmatically that this second lockdown will be the last lockdown.

Johnson himself has been caught out, saying he'd rather "let the bodies pile high in their thousands" (as if they haven't already done so), instead of imposing another lockdown.

The British government in particular is pushing ahead with the next stage of opening up despite failing to meet the fourth of its own four tests (“the assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern”).

Within Westminster itself, it’s the Tory Covid Recovery Group (CRG) who have been consistently pushing for opening up. The CRG includes Steve Baker who is a supporter of The Great Barrington Declaration (a pseudoscientific eugenics manifesto which promotes ‘Herd Immunity’), Graham Brady, Robert Syms, Ex-DWP minister for Disabled people Mark Harper and William Wragg who signed a letter to the telegraph accusing the National Trust of ‘Cultural Marxism’ (a classic antisemitic slur)

The Scottish and Welsh governments as devolved administrations have until now been more cautious and gradual in their approach but this could be only an expression of the fact that they do not face the same intensity of pressure from the capitalist class due to the limits of their powers.

The British, Scottish and Welsh governments are not "reopening"  Britain because it is safe or beneficial to the majority of people to do so. They are reopening because capitalism is in crisis, and the system needs workers to keep it shambling along. Having killed over 100,000 people — many of whom were workers — through its piecemeal pandemic strategy, the capitalist state now wants to pick itself up and dust itself off as quickly as possible.

"Back to normal" is what capitalism wants. But "normal" was already falling apart. There was already labour exploitation, imperialist war, healthcare inequality, systemic racism, police violence, the climate crisis — the pandemic only worsened these problems. The reopening is just the capitalists' anxious attempt to kickstart an economic system that was already doomed.

That is to say, reopening is not actually about letting people get back to the forms of in-person connection that many have been missing out on for so long. Rather, it's about getting people out making money and spending money again — in other words, it's about getting people back to work generating profits for the wealthy. Throughout the pandemic, the state's restrictions have not been based on what is safe, but on what is economically productive. The state's priority is not the health of people, but of the capitalist economy.

With the pivot from "lockdown" measures to vaccination and reopening, just like before, the state's plan is designed for the benefit of itself, the ruling class, and the entire capitalist system rather than for the benefit of the people.

So what does reopening actually mean for the health of the working and oppressed classes? Accommodations for remote work and study — which were often denied to disabled people before the pandemic — are now commonplace. However, these measures were implemented not for the sake of health or accessibility, but for the sake of continuing economic activity in any way possible. We will likely soon begin to see attempts to withdraw these accommodations and force workers back into the workplace, removing any autonomy they may have gained over their working conditions. We have already seen a degree of this. The Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in March encouraged companies to bring office workers back .

We should resist these rollbacks on worker autonomy. However, it is important to recognise that the most vulnerable and heavily exploited workers — particularly those in the service industry, such as line cooks and delivery drivers — have never had this autonomy, and have been subjected to the most dangerous conditions throughout the pandemic. Going forward, while some workers may be able to continue with work-from-home arrangements that prioritise their safety, workers in jobs that cannot be done remotely (and which enable others to work remotely) will continue to be forced to accept in-person work and its associated risks. We must act in solidarity with these workers and support their ongoing labour struggles.


The fear of the third wave

Evidence suggests that the Covid-19 vaccines are safe and effective at preventing infection. But no vaccine can completely stop transmission (passing the virus to another person), so vaccination cannot eliminate the virus altogether until a majority of people are vaccinated, achieving herd immunity. This takes time under the best of circumstances, and it is even more of a challenge when distribution of the vaccine is severely unequal and inequitable.

In Britain, the vaccine rollout has prioritised the elderly and disabled — a futile attempt to distract from the state's prior eugenicist policies which intentionally caused mass death in these very same populations. On the other hand, the vaccine is still being withheld from many workers and younger people who are likely (or required) to be attending work and school, as well as other at-risk groups such as the homeless and those without GPs. This allows transmission to continue among unvaccinated populations, keeping the virus spreading.

Sarah Walker, an Oxford professor of medical statistics, has declared that Coronavirus is no longer a pandemic in Britain but now an endemic, a dangerous and negligent assertion tinged with ‘Island Story’ arrogance risking presenting Britain as some kind of success story. This could not be further from the truth. A more cautious opinion was given by Professor Adam Finn of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation who said that, "The sense that the problem is all over, I'm afraid, is a flawed one, we're still in a vulnerable situation, and there are still significant numbers of people who potentially could be harmed by this infection if this happens."

We may be an island but we are not isolated. We exist interconnectedly in a global world and if Covid-19 exists in any corner of the world it is present everywhere (as we are witnessing with the Brazillian and Indian variants). Only international cooperation and a whole world vaccination program, such as demonstrated by Cuba or China’s Sinovac vaccine being given to Brazil’s indigenous communities, may truly end this pandemic.

The impression given is that the Pandemic is coming to an end even as countries such as France, Italy and Germany have experienced a third wave only a month ago and the total worldwide known deaths caused by the pandemic has now passed (at least) 3 million.

The most conservative modelling from April estimated around 15,700 additional deaths in England by June 2022. This seems absurdly low given what we have already seen.

The worst case scenarios modelled by Imperial back in February (before the Indian variant’s prevalence and so these are likely underestimates) suggested 58,900 to 143,400 more deaths between 12 February 2021 and 30 June 2022.

There is growing consensus that Britain will experience a third wave of the pandemic this year. The debate revolves around when that might be (late summer or autumn) and how severe it could be. Scientists suggest the third wave will lead to more deaths if it involves variants of concern.

The mounting evidence for a third wave include the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring the Indian variant (B.1.617) a “variant of Global concern” suggesting it may have increased transmissibility.  The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has suggested it may be as much as 50% more transmissible. Whether vaccines might be less effective on this variant is unclear though a report by the WHO on the 11 May cited some preliminary studies which hint at the possibility.

The Indian variant was detected first in October last year and has three subtypes. One subtype (B.1.617.2) is now making up the majority of Indian variant cases in Britain.  There have been 1,393 detected instances up to 7 May of this variant and it is already present in  Glasgow, Moray, Leicester, London, Sefton, Bolton (one of the areas of highest presence of the Indian variant subtype), Nottingham and Blackburn. In the case of Bolton, the variant appears to have spread through  community transmission, mostly in deprived areas, especially in schools and households and especially amongst younger people - communities that are disproportionately likely to live in crowded and cramped accommodation and, because of the vaccine priorities set, be unvaccinated.

Public Health England figures suggest Indian variant cases have risen from 520 up to 1,313 cases on the 5th of May. There have been 35  known cases in Scotland and 11 cases in Wales.This has forced  Boris Johnson to admit that the Indian variant could affect the opening up in England planned for 21 June. In fact, Johnson's own scientific advisors have told him that the 'realistic possibility' of a 40-50% transmission advantage in the new variant 'would [likely] lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks)', not with the step 4 measures in a month's time, but with solely the step 3 measures he's ploughing ahead with right now. If Johnson is sincere in his vow to make each relaxation of the Covid rules irreversible, then he is already making good on his promise to pile our bodies high. He is intentionally lighting a long fuse in the hopes that, when it sets off an explosion in 1-2 months' time and leaves tens of thousands more dead, we won't connect the cause to the effect.

Only now, at the last hour, has Johnson decided that the wait between doses must be reduced because of the risks posed by the variant and that ‘surge testing’ should take place.

Getting Back to Normal?

Despite all the talk of "reopening" and "things going back to normal," the reality is that nothing will ever be the same again. We can never magically return to a pre-covid world. The shadow cast over us by the coronavirus will blanket us for decades to come. The pandemic has brought to the forefront many pre-existing issues around systemic ableism, ageism, racism, healthcare and eugenics, education, accessibility, tenants' rights, worker safety — issues of deep-rooted injustice which must be faced directly.

The future ahead of us builds on the horrors of the preceding previous lockdowns - the eugenicist policies which resulted in the deaths of racialised groups, the disabled and the elderly, of migrants and of prisoners.

All opening up is likely to achieve is the exposure of large sections of the population once again to the virus.. With much of the adult population under 40 years old unvaccinated and set to only receive their first dose at the end of July, the loosening of restrictions and a worrying increase in a range of new variants (particularly the Indian variant), the majority of scientific opinion agrees that its highly likely that Britain will see a third wave of the pandemic this year which will be blamed on the general public.

There is a definite blasé attitude to this third wave which implies that since it won’t affect the vulnerable, there is no cause for concern.

But on 1 April it was reported that the Office of National Statistics(ONS) estimated at least 1 million people had Long Covid (which is defined as symptoms lasting more than four weeks) with rates highest amongst the 25 to 35 year old demographic, precisely the largely unvaccinated population for which the British government continues to express little concern.

This spread would likely be in schools (as we’ve seen in Bolton) and universities. And we will likely see outbreaks in workplaces of those who are low paid, which tends to include racialised groups, precarious workers and migrants. And the resumption of international travel could further spread the Indian variant.

Beyond British borders, some countries are struggling to access the vaccine at all. These countries, many of which have been severely underdeveloped (exploited) by British colonialism and neocolonialism, are charged exorbitant prices for the same vaccine that imperialist nations can get much more cheaply. The imperialist nations have the resources to distribute vaccines and assuage this crisis, but it isn't in their interests to do so. As the pandemic has made clear so many times now, capitalists are only out to make money; where there is no profit to be made, containing the virus is not a priority.

Vaccines, as well as the specialised processes and equipment needed to manufacture them, must not be patented and held hostage behind capitalist opportunism. The health of the world's people should be prioritised above profit — but British capitalists have never taken that responsibility, and they never will.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Chief of WHO has predicted this second year of the pandemic is set to be more deadly than the first. With just over half (51%) of vaccine doses going to high income countries(normally meaning imperialist countries) which only represent 14% of the world’s population, we must strenuously fight any attempts to push Vaccine Nationalism and fight for vaccine supplies for the Global south and neo-colonised world.

Internationally, as demonstrated by the threatened export ban and conflicts over fishing it is likely we will see increased conflict between Britain and the EU imperialist bloc. Great Power Competition will continue as the US turns its attention primarily to the Pacific and the South China sea. Under the brand of ‘Global Britain’, Britain has stated its intention to focus on the Indo-Pacific, involvement in Africa and the Middle East, and announced it views Russia as “ the most acute threat to our security”.

Also concerning is the possibility of "vaccine passports": documents proving a person's vaccination status, where possession would be used to restrict access to services and spaces. This would simply create new barriers for people who have not been able to access the vaccine because of the state's own refusal to distribute them fairly. It would also increase the state's powers of surveillance and punishment, part of its ongoing fascistic turn. It's clearly not about safety; if the state cared about improving public health and creating virus-free spaces, we would have seen a totally different initial response from the outset of the pandemic, as well as a totally different response right now.

Economically the pandemic will likely intensify monopoly which already exists in the present imperialist stage of capitalism as outlined by Lenin. This would include tendencies already apparent, reaching its most ridiculous levels such as Marks & Spencer launching a legal claim for copyright infringement against Aldi over a caterpillar cake.

The capitalist class is divided like warring brothers in the crisis of the pandemic, with each part asserting its own interests. Throughout the pandemic, landlords and businesses have made rent agreements. As the economy opens up landlords are beginning to demand the payment of rents owed with only one fifth of commercial rent paid in the latest quarter.

Conclusion

As Britain "reopens" and the bourgeois political parties prattle on about "recovery", we must be prepared for the forms of oppression that were intensified throughout the pandemic to continue adapting along with this agenda. The state is never going to start acting in the interest of working class and oppressed people — not in Britain, nor internationally.

As we have said, “The final crisis demands a deepening of labour exploitation and of resource extraction, and therefore a simultaneous slashing of workers’ rights, intensification of various social oppressions and worsening of the climate crisis.”

Countless reports demonstrate, unsurprisingly, that racialised groups in Britain have been the most affected by Covid-19 and are disproportionately more likely to die from the virus. With Covid-19 and the Final Crisis, the violence of our inherently racial capitalism will only increase and become ever more palpable. We have seen this with the Sewell report and its denial of institutional racism which is an attempt to push back against the Black Lives Matter movement. With this will come an increasing emphasis on law and focus on crime. Beyond the sensationalist tabloid headlines, as we’ve written elsewhere, “we must recognise that the strengthening of ‘law and order’ in racial capitalist societies is always the strengthening of whiteness”.

This may follow in the wake of further austerity as we are forced to pay for the coronavirus borrowing and as the state needs to cut the public sector back further to restore as much profitability as possible in light of the Final Crisis. Let us be clear: The Tories haven’t abandoned neoliberalism ideologically just because they granted furlough. This was forced upon them from outside by the sheer necessity of circumstances. If they didn’t act they would’ve seen eye watering levels of unemployment and consequently, unprecedented social unrest.

We must also recognise the ongoing damage to public health caused by certain forms of capitalist violence which are rife in Britain: evictions and homelessness, deportations, and imprisonment. Although the Coronavirus Act 2020 put a temporary ban on evictions, it will soon be legal again for landlords to throw people out onto the streets, where the virus is only one of many threats to health. Meanwhile, deportations and detainments have continued unchecked, subjecting society's most marginalised populations to unhygienic, unsafe, and fundamentally inhumane conditions. It is not beyond our ability to resist these deportations as a huge recent protest in Glasgow which blockaded the street has successfully demonstrated.

It cannot be overstated how severely the British state, along with other capitalist states like the US, has exacerbated and prolonged this global health crisis through racist and imperialist policies of private property, criminalisation and border control. Now more than ever, we need to direct our energy towards ensuring that this state is dismantled — it has proven that even in the most extreme scenarios, it will not act in the interests of humanity. The entry into a period of Final Crisis is tangible, even if there is sometimes a desire by capitalist intellectuals and media to dismiss or deny it. There are many looking for answers.

There is very obviously interconnection between new age beliefs, fake news, pseudoscience and fascism. A more comprehensive materialist analysis of the forces driving such ideology requires deeper investigation. For now we can say that those drawn to these groups are clearly driven by reasonable distrust and dissatisfaction with the government and a growing felt sense of crisis. But without the worldview provided by the ideological leadership of socialists, they lack the perspective to understand the world historical significance of this moment.

If we cannot present a clear compelling coherent alternative then the far right will assemble the existing elements and present their position instead. We recognise lines are being drawn and in time choices will need to be made. The only optimism for us lies in our ability to unite and organise ourselves, in our workplaces, in our communities, and ultimately as a political party of the working class and the oppressed.

OUR DEMANDS

  • Vaccine distribution based on risk of exposure — not age.
  • No vaccine passports or discrimination based on vaccination status.
  • No vaccine apartheid — excess doses ordered by Europe and the US to be immediately distributed internationally
  • Immediate investment in vaccine manufacturing for the Global South
  • Investment in infrastructure and equipment to enable continued remote work/study where possible — no mandatory returns to physical attendance.
  • No more deportations or evictions.
  • Immediate release and housing of prisoners, refugees, and asylum seekers.