The governments, the virus and us

Submitted by AWL on 26 January, 2021 - 6:01 Author: Martin Thomas

Of almost all governments in the world, Japan’s is the one whose management of the pandemic is least approved by its people.

You can see why. Its testing rates have always been very low, and are about one-fifteenth of the UK’s. It has had no lockdowns. It has made a one-off cash handout of £700 per person, but has a poor sick-pay regime. It even now intends to go ahead with the Olympics in Tokyo in July-August, though 80% of the population object.

Yet cumulative deaths per million from Covid in Japan are 40, compared to 1437 in the UK and 116 and 100 even in Europe’s least-hit countries, Finland and Norway. And that despite Japan having crowded cities, cramped housing, and the oldest population in the world.

Japan’s current rate of deaths per million rose above Norway’s and Finland’s only on 21 January.

We know neither why Japan has had a relatively low toll so far, nor whether the recent rise is a start of a surge which will make its eventual toll much higher.

In Europe, people puzzled about why Germany and Portugal and the Czech Republic had such relatively low Covid tolls, until September at least. Now the puzzle is “resolved” by Germany having a Covid death rate almost twice France’s, and Portugal a rate almost four times France’s (indeed, even higher than the UK’s, and still rising). The Czech Republic’s was from October to mid-January higher than the UK’s or Portugal’s, and is only tentatively falling.

So far, surprisingly, poor countries have had lower tolls than richer ones. Africa has suffered 60 deaths per million, Asia 80, Europe and South America both about 900, the USA 1300. We don’t know whether this disparity will switch if Big Pharma continues to clutch its vaccine patents, so the poor countries lack vaccines while vaccination “works” well but the richer buy up the supply. South Africa already has a death rate higher than Europe’s average.

Different variants of the virus (those didn’t start from nothing on 14 December); different disease histories and so inherited partial protections from the virus; different proportions of young people (who survive the virus much better); different numbers of frail people surviving other ailments but then falling to the virus; and different rural-urban balances — some of those may make a difference.

It remains likely that the inconsistency of British government policy; its prior starving of public health; and its dislike for payments which could “stick” after the pandemic subsides, like better sick pay, are factors in Britain having the worse cumulative death rate per million, so far, of any big country.

The clearest “proven” policy is closing borders before many infections enter. Remote islands like Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, etc., and countries with ultra-policed land borders like South Korea, have kept tolls low.

Within Europe and the Americas, and for good reasons, not even a doubling or tripling of police forces could close borders that tightly; and New Zealand and the others still don’t know when they will reopen their borders and what will happen then. Rigorous quarantining of those who enter a country may be workable, effective, and less unjust than total border-closure, though it is hard to see how even that will work with e.g. truck-drivers in Europe.

Social solidarity, whether won by labour-movement effort or organised from above by paternalist states, helps. That would explain why northern Europe has generally done better than southern Europe, and Canada than the USA, and some of East Asia’s advantage.

Where populations have learned from previous recent experience of epidemics, and also where they accept high government surveillance (as in Taiwan and South Korea), that aids virus-control.

Countries where the frail elderly are mostly cared for at home or in small units have done better than those with large elderly-care institutions generating multiple possible infection routes.

Despite Japan’s counter-example, improved isolation pay and sick pay generally bring better results.

Efficient testing, tracing, and isolation can help to keep low rates of infection low. If numbers are low enough, quarantine accommodation for the self-isolating, too.

But both evidence and reasoning (from the fact that many infections are passed on before the infectious person has symptoms) suggest that testing, tracing, and isolation has nowhere been effective on its own to replace other policies: border policies, covid-distancing, and, usually, the old, clumsy, costly, but often necessary policy: lockdowns.

Lockdowns are not sufficient by themselves (Argentina is the prime example), and there is no clear evidence that stricter lockdowns (beyond a certain minimum) work better. The labour movement can only nullify itself by taking on the role of the at-all-times great enthusiast for stricter police measures, and we would be foolish to think we can second-guess the scientists on which lockdown and distancing measures work best. Measures of social solidarity will not of themselves halt the pandemic. The balance of evidence is that they help. And they should be the specific contribution of the labour movement.

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