The labour movement and easing the lockdown

Submitted by AWL on 28 April, 2020 - 2:06 Author: Martin Thomas
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Starting with Austria reopening small shops on 14 April, almost all European countries have now begun easing their pandemic lockdowns, or announced plans to do so (Italy from 4 May, France from 11 May).

Iran has reopened the bazaar in Tehran. Schools have restarted in Beijing and Shanghai.

The World Health Organisation, however, has declared that “the worst is yet to come”. Its worry is not so much about a second wave in Europe, as first waves elsewhere.

Africa so far shows 1,428 deaths, far fewer than Europe or the USA, and concentrated in Algeria and Egypt (over half that total between them). South America shows 6,321, concentrated in Brazil (two-thirds of that total).

But Brazil and Egypt (and Mexico and India, too, though not Algeria) show increasing daily counts of deaths, not levelled-off or decreasing counts as in Europe or even the USA.

Even in Europe, the official death counts are unreliable. And in Jakarta, Indonesia, for example, in the same period of March-April when there were officially 90 Covid-19 deaths, the “excess deaths” calculated from burials ran at 1,400.

India and the countries of Africa and South America have fewer hospitals, fewer health workers, and scantier medical supplies than even the worst-provided European countries.

Some of them have sparser populations, but some denser (India, 420/km², ahead of the Netherlands at 412/km²); and most have a lot of their populations in large and very crowded cities.

Their populations are younger (median age in Nigeria, for example, is 18, while in Japan and Germany it’s 47). But many of them also have more people in long-term ill-health (Sudan, Pakistan, and Egypt have among the highest rates in the world for diabetes, for example).

The labour movement should demand that the government requisition industry, not just to meet Britain’s demand for PPE, tests, ventilators, etc., but to help provision for countries with smaller industrial bases.

Most of the countries of Europe look to have passed their peak rate of Covid-19 deaths, for this wave anyway, around or before mid-April.

But many still show a high number of cases, and quite high daily numbers of deaths.

No one knows which easings will keep the disease still fading, and which won’t. Some countries are starting with a staged reopening of schools, some with a staged reopening of smaller shops.

Neil Ferguson, a scientist at Imperial College who worked on the 16 March report which spurred the British government into lockdown, has promised to publish within a few days a new report “modelling” scenarios for easing. Interviewed online, he said his best guess is that Britain should try to follow the model of South Korea.

South Korea’s peak number of identified active cases of Covid-19 was 7,362, in a population not much smaller than Britain, and the current number here is 131,764. At the least, scaling up the South Korean operation by a factor of 15 or 20 will not be easy.

Scientists still do not know, even approximately, many of the basic facts about this virus. More testing will give us better guesses, but only better guesses.

The labour movement should campaign for more testing and tracing, and for workers’ and trade union supervision, assisted by experts, of the conditions for all reopenings after the lockdown.

In Britain, a survey done by academics (on 9-11 April) has found an 87% to 7% majority for continuing the lockdown for another three weeks (from the date of the survey).

So, despite some right-wing outriders, the government looks unlikely to move fast. It has suggested that it may increase restrictions in one way, by imposing a 14-day quarantine on everyone who enters the country.

Some building sites and hardware shops are reopening. The general secretary of a head teachers’ union, ASCL, has talked of schools reopening in early June (for the second half of the summer term).

The social and even health costs of long school closures are sizeable.

Yet testing, contact-tracing, provision of PPE, and guarantees of isolation pay, are still inadequate and will be still important, maybe more important, in an eased lockdown. The labour movement should insist on adequate provision as a precondition.

More testing of health workers, care workers, etc., and more “experimental” testing to gauge infection rates in different areas, is required. Some scientists have suggested that weekly testing of the whole population be tried out at least in one city; but to extend that approach generally would require a testing rate over a hundred times bigger than any big country has managed, and probably wouldn’t work well.

Before roll-out of phone-based contact-tracing apps, the labour movement should insist on guarantees about control of the data, and about the workability.

The Net-a-Porter luxury goods mail-order firm shut down under pressure from the GMB union, and is now doing a deal with the GMB to reopen with safety provisions agreed with the union (smaller numbers on site at any time, one way in another way out, stopping the searches previously done on workers at the end of each shift...)

In workplaces remaining open during the lockdown — mail offices, refuse collection operations, the Tube — workers, sometimes using “Section 44” walkouts, have won agreements to improve social distancing and other protections.

The labour movement should take that approach as a model, in schools and elsewhere.

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