Lockdowns and "life against life"

Submitted by martin on 4 December, 2020 - 9:44 Author: Martin Thomas
Columbus, Ohio

Photo by Jason Mowry on Unsplash


Mike Haynes was long the Socialist Workers Party leading writer on Russia. Since quitting the SWP in 2013 he has been connected with the SWP splinter group RS21.

On his blog he has criticised the uncritical lockdown-enthusiasm of the SWP and RS21, explaining that "lockdowns not only save lives, they take them".

Increased police curbs and the shutting-down of many services have downsides as well as upsides, and the downsides of those measures hit the worst-off hardest.

The pandemic too hits the worst-off hardest. To flip over into anti-lockdown-ism would be as foolish as uncritical lockdown-enthusiasm. Traffic-safety curbs, or curbs (such as high taxes) on alcohol and tobacco, tend to hit the worst-off hardest, but unsafe streets and heavy alcohol and tobacco consumption do too. So we are for curbs and for mitigations of their disequalising impacts.

As the socialist epidemiologist George Davey Smith has put it, the question around virus curbs and mitigations is really "life against life", not "lives versus the economy".

Socialist Worker denounced South Korea for reopening its schools, saying that it showed only that for capitalists "the production of the labour force is more valuable to the ruling class than the lives of children" (SW 29 May 2020).

But the socialist ideal is not where schools are sufficiently suppressed that no-one learns how to do anything productive. It is not a proposition of setting "lives" above "the economy" (as lockdown-enthusiasts often phrase it) as if the socialist ideal would be for "the economy" to be suppressed except presumably for some external class of providers who keep the blissfully-uneconomic socialists fed and housed. The virus blights lives, but so does excluding children from learning and from socialising.

Haynes reproduces a tweet from J J Charlesworth, an art writer who describes himself as a Marxist (yet is a "Great Barrington" type). "There was never any lockdown. There was just middle-class people hiding while working-class people brought them things".

The phrase is neat but facile. A lot of "middle-class" people have had to go into workplaces during lockdowns (doctors, for example), a lot of "ordinary" working-class people have been on work-from-home or furlough, and better more deliveries than supermarkets being crowded.

There is a strand of truth buried in the facile jibe, though. Some writers have talked about "shielding" of the more vulnerable (elderly, etc.) as an alternative to lockdowns. That was always difficult. The elderly in care homes or with domiciliary care were probably, in spring 2020, the most exposed to the virus rather than the most shielded. Even with a better care system, the frail elderly by definition need other people to help them and can't quarantine themselves off as completely as young and fit people can.

In fact, the least vulnerable adults have mostly been "shielded" best. Namely, the prosperous, who can snugly and securely work from home, who have comfortable and well-equipped homes, congenial households, gardens, access to other nearby open space. And who are usually in better health to start with.

The government Health and Safety Executive has suffered severe cuts. On top of that, though, in spring it paused all workplace inspections for the duration. The relatively well paid HSE inspectors were safe at home. The (usually worse-paid) workers in workplaces didn't get those workplaces checked.

The high-rise council block of flats we live in is in good condition, and not a slum. Nevertheless, lockdown for our neighbours, who are a seven-person household in a tiny flat, is different from lockdown for a small household in a big house.

Lockdown for a similar family on the 16th floor is different again from all of us on the 6th floor, who can choose to avoid the confined space of the lift and use the stairs instead (my arthritis isn't that bad yet. But when it is...).

Even for us, the stairwell isn't big enough to allow two metres distancing, and on most journeys up or down the stairs we cross paths with someone else.

Not all lockdowns are the same, even for those who can work from home.

I don't think there is a neat answer, full lockdown forever or no lockdown ever. The struggle of socialists runs at an angle across the lockdown/ open-up axis, rather than pushing unilaterally to one end or another of it. An angle, as Mike Haynes says, determined by class considerations.

The evidence from Europe in April-June, before the counterproductive decisions to reopen pubs and cafés and tourism, suggests that "moderate" lockdowns can be sustainable without the level of police enforcement that imposed a million fines in each of Spain and France in early-2020 lockdown and yet push infections down.

Some things are priorities for us as essential services in lockdown: schools, especially primary schools. Non-emergency medical care. Care for the impaired and vulnerable. And the labour movement.

We were for keeping cafés and pubs closed longer, not because we think that only profit-grabbers could want to open them and the socialist ideal would have no such places, but because they are less essential and, on the evidence, livelier hubs of transmission.

Where we can achieve it, we prefer workers' control to win provisions to reopen workplaces (relatively) safely above keeping them closed indefinitely, because we generally value what those workplaces produce, and because workers in the workplace always have more power to win social gains (such as isolation pay, quarantine accommodation, PPE, emergency public ownership in health and social care) than workers scattered and isolated at home.

We aren't, and can't try to be, experts in the exact calibration of the top-down curbs, though we should try to educate ourselves and comment intelligently. The irreplaceable role of the labour movement and the left is to fight for the measures of social solidarity that are essential both to make the top-down curbs really effective against the virus, and to mitigate their bad effects.

Comments

Submitted by David Avery (not verified) on Mon, 14/12/2020 - 21:29

Closing Cafés might sound good, but it ain't so good for bus and truck drivers. Are truck driver to starve, when they are weeks away from home. Today I was up at 0500, too early to eat. I did 67 and the break was as Dalston, at 10am. If the cafe was shut I would starve. I normally drive the 444 and the break ls are normally at Turnpike Lane. In the rest room it says there should be no more than 3, there is often 6. The Boris bus I was driving say there should only 30 people. When I left wood green at 1pm there was more like 70 on. Should I leave the old people with trolleys and woman with babies and young children behind! 

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