Covid-19: fight for workers' control

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2020 - 11:20 Author: Editorial
Wash hands

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You, the reader, know what to do about Covid-19 for yourself and your household. You know how to steer clear of the conspiracy theories and quack remedies on social media.

You also know, more or less, what the public health experts are doing. And you know it would be foolish to pretend to be an alternative expert on disease control and epidemiology.

But what is your employer doing? What is the government doing? Make the labour movement fight for public scrutiny and workers’ control!

What is the government doing to secure your ability to take time off work, without being pauperised, for “self-isolation”, for sickness, or to look after children whose schools are closed?

Employers will be biased towards minimising sick pay and towards keeping all decisions behind closed doors and in the hands of top managers.

An informed, structured, measured democracy is the best way to make the crucial decisions.

The NHS needs emergency funding to ease its current overstretch and so that it can take emergency premises and emergency staff if necessary.

The government should prepare emergency production facilities, under public ownership, to produce more of the masks, gowns, etc., which NHS workers and medical workers elsewhere lack.

Local authorities need emergency funding to help them provide support locally.

Medical services in poorer countries will be much more overstretched than even the NHS. The labour movement should demand massive aid from the richer countries to help out.

We demand the government legislate to compel payment of full sick pay from day one to all, and paid leave for workers obliged to stay home to care for children if schools are closed; and as a safety net institute payment of Universal Credit without delay and in advance.

A big spread of a disease like Covid-19 would cause economic disruption even in the best-ordered economy. In a capitalist world there is the additional risk of a snowball effect, as disruptions cause a sudden decline in workers’ purchasing power and in capitalist investment spending, and an implosion of credit and financial markets.

The best way to forestall the risk of a credit implosion and snowballing economic crisis is to put high finance under public ownership and democratic control.

In every workplace, we want the unions to demand the employer publish their plans for dealing with Covid-19 risks and to discuss those plans with the trade unions, with the help of as much qualified advice as available.

Unions, as much as employers, should respect the scientific advice. But there will be many questions in blurred areas between scientific answers and social issues such as sick pay and job security. Unions should insist that the trade unions, as the chief democratic and representative bodies of the people who make the workplace function, should have the decisive voice here.

We do not know whether this pandemic will reach anything like the scale of the so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918-20, which killed maybe 50 million people (more than World War 1), and infected maybe a third of the world’s whole population.

We do know a lesson that historians of 1918-20 have drawn.

“The poor and workers suffered worse from the flu, in general, than the well-off… because they were more likely to be hungry, to have an underlying disease, and to be housed in crowded and unhealthy accommodation”.

Inequality blights. Inequality and eroded social provision kill. Socialists will work for the labour movement to fight against inequality, and fight for workers’ control at every level and at every step over Covid-19 measures.

Lessons from 1918

No one yet knows the likely scale of the Covid-19 pandemic. The biggest previous similar pandemic was the “Spanish Flu” in 1918-20, which infected maybe a third of the world’s population and killed more people than the whole of World War One.

Climate change, and mass international travel, stand behind the new pandemic. Behind the old one was the war, with its mass movements of closely-packed troops.

It came to be called “Spanish Flu” because the warring governments suppressed information to try to keep up war morale. Spain was neutral and the government there did give out information.

In fact the worst-hit area was India. Maybe 18 million died there after the virus arrived on a troopship. The British colonial administration did almost nothing to help limit the disease, and millions of ill-nourished people living in crowded conditions were especially vulnerable.

The 1918-20 pandemic came in three waves: the first milder; the second, in September-December 1918, fierce (that is when most of the deaths were); and the third, milder again, from early 1919.

More is known now about how to try to control the disease. In 1918-20, it was not even known that it was caused by a virus. But even now we have no instant answer to the fact that, the virus being new to humans, no one has immunity to it.

It is possible that this virus will, like the 1918-20 one, mutate into fiercer or milder forms.

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