The labour movement and Covid: a debate

Submitted by martin on 14 February, 2021 - 9:14 Author: Martin Thomas

This is a tidied-up transcript of a speech in a discussion with Emma Runswick of ZeroCovid at the Workers' Liberty Zoom forum on 14 February 2021.

I'm not an epidemiologist, and the labour movement is not a university faculty of epidemiology. So we don't think we can second-guess the scientists about the science of the pandemic.

We try to educate ourselves in the science, and we try to make intelligent judgements and comments where the scientific opinion is divided, as it often is, but we understand our limits.

So in the pandemic we've argued for the labour movement to focus on social measures which, so far as we can understand the science, are good for making government measures like lockdowns work well to control infection, and good also to offset the social costs of government and police measures like lockdowns.

Our idea is that combatting the pandemic requires mutual aid - each of us helping to reduce the risk of us infecting the next person.

Kropotkin used "mutual aid" more or less as a synonym for socialism. The more social solidarity we can win or defend - through measures of social equality, of mutual trust, of social provision - the more easy and probable it will be for people to help each other on a large scale.

For example, lockdowns with full isolation pay and quarantine accommodation for people who would otherwise be trying to self-isolate in crowded housing work better, and have fewer social downsides, than lockdowns without those things. And the labour movement has to fight for that isolation pay, because we know the government will be reluctant.

So we have campaigned for full isolation pay - and with some victories.

And for other social measures with the same theme of social solidarity:

• for the requisitioning, or emergency public ownership, of industry, of resources like private health care, of resources for the production and distribution of PPE, and now especially of Big Pharma - of the patents and the intellectual property and the production infrastructure of the big pharmaceutical corporations, so that they become public resources, mutual resources

• for bringing social care into the public sector, with care workers on the same sort of pay and conditions as directly employed NHS workers with union agreements

• for public health test and trace

• and for workers' control of workplace safety.

ZeroCovid's statement strongly suggests support for full isolation pay. That's good. We hope ZeroCovid will take up the call for a united front on this issue from Safe and Equal, a campaign we initiated which has been plugging away at this for a long time now. We're glad to see the call for public-health test and trace in Zero Covid's statement.

What concerns us, and what we want to debate, is that the other social measures aren't in ZeroCovid's statement. There's no actual call for workers' control, for example. There is a call for workers to be "fully involved" in workplace safety which I'd guess is meant as a hint, but a hint isn't enough on that sort of thing.

The social measures mostly aren't there, and instead there is what I think is an exaggerated and unrealistic reliance on policing and lockdowns as the answer.

So the headline demand from ZeroCovid is that we want the government to do a maximum-strength lockdown. Then keep it on until the infection rate has gone to zero, or "near zero". And then we'll be good. Problem fixed.

I want to discuss five worries about that focus.

Firstly, that it just won't work in its own terms. ZeroCovid says it's been done in other countries, but in fact what they propose has been done nowhere. The evidence from across the world suggests to me that their scheme just wouldn't work.

Secondly, that it relies on the idea that 100% lockdowns are the only ones that work. There is no room in the scheme for eased lockdowns which still enforce a lot of covid-distancing but allow at least a limited amount of people socialising

Thirdly, that it seems oblivious to the downsides and the costs of lockdowns

Fourthly, that it takes no account of the changes introduced by the arrival of vaccines

And fifthly, that it is a focus and a policy which eliminates or marginalises the labour movement as a factor in the situation.

Before going into those five worries - it's not that we're against all lockdowns. Lockdowns are a very old, very clumsy, and costly way of dealing with infectious diseases. But the evidence since early 2020 is that they can work up to a point and given certain conditions. The trouble is that the "up to a point" and "certain conditions" are quite big factors.

Firstly, will the lockdown-lockdown-lockdown-zero-all-clear scenario work in its own terms?

It's been done nowhere. None of the countries which ZeroCovid cites as a model has done it.

There is a common factor in those countries cited by ZeroCovid, and that is that they are remote islands or countries which have land borders which are heavily policed and not crossed much.

New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea - they all have had and are continuing those effectively closed borders. There are other countries which have had relatively low tolls for the same reason. Some people might say Cuba has had a low toll because it is a model of public health. But it's hard to believe in model public health in other islands with low tolls - Haiti, or Mauritius, or Barbados, or Madagascar, where the government has promoted herbal tea as the answer to the virus.

Of all the richer countries, Japan is the one where the population most disapproves of its government's policies in the pandemic, and I tend to sympathise with the people rather than the government. But it has a lower toll so far than anywhere in Europe. Why? Because it's an island country with closed borders.

That's the common factor. Tight lockdowns aren't.

NZ did have a relatively tight lockdown for four weeks in spring 2020. It didn't start that lockdown with the aim of ZeroCovid. It started it for the same reason as the Tories here had started a lockdown a few days earlier - because it was the only thing the government could think of to reduce the risk of the hospitals being swamped, and NZ is even shorter of ICU beds proportionately than Britain.

There was nothing special about the NZ lockdown when it started. But it worked much better than the government had expected, probably because the virus arrived in NZ relatively late and they could and did close borders rigidly.

Even then NZ didn't do what ZeroCovid recommends. NZ didn't keep the tight lockdown until they got to zero. NZ isn't at zero now. It has a low level, but it has had two further lockdowns since.

Australia had a looser lockdown than in Britain in spring 2020. Not pushed through to zero. Five further lockdowns in various states since then, because of leaks from their quarantine system.

Still the figures are much better than in Europe. Why? Not because of better lockdowns, but because of the closed borders. Australia's and NZ's figures will rise again when they reopen their borders. I guess that now, with things looking good on the vaccines, they can plausibly hope that a year or two will reduce world levels enough to make that new rise manageable. It's good they've managed to use geography to help them. It's not a template for non-islands.

Taiwan and South Korea haven't had lockdowns across the country at all, so "super-strict lockdown" can't explain their relative success!

They haven't got zero Covid, either. In early January, for example, South Korea had four times the level of Covid deaths of its peak in spring last year. Still a lot lower than Europe - because of the closed borders.

I know of one country that has imposed a strict lockdown and just kept it on month after month: Argentina. Argentina had a relatively low toll last spring, but for some reason, I suspect basically because of social factors which made the lockdown ineffective, the toll just kept on going up until they first saw some decrease in late October. By then no-one had the will to continue a lockdown for six months longer, a year longer, to zero, or any good reason for confidence that the extra six months or a year would actually bring zero.

My second worry is about the idea that lockdowns have to be absolute-maximum, or theoretically maximal anyway, as in Argentina, to work.

Let's look at how strict lockdowns were in Western Europe - across countries where social conditions are fairly comparable - at their height around the end of March 2020.

This is the order from strict to loose: Italy the strictest, then France, Spain, Belgium, UK, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Denmark, and Finland the loosest.

So the correlation is, roughly, the stricter the lockdown the worse the toll. I don't think the strict lockdowns caused the worse tolls. I think the worse tolls caused the strict lockdowns, because the governments there felt under greater pressure to be seen to do something drastic.

But the stricter lockdowns didn't bring quicker drops in infection. And when those lockdowns were eased from early April - primary schools reopened in Denmark, for example - the infection curves kept going down.

They started going up again in Europe after the schools closed in July and the tourist industries and the cafés and the bars and the pubs got busy again. We opposed that reopening of pubs and tourist industries. Lockdowns make a difference. But on the evidence is it's not true that it's either maximum lockdown for however many months or years it takes, or nothing.

Australia had a much looser lockdown than New Zealand in spring 2020, but the declining infection curves were almost identical in the two countries.

In early 2020 Britain remained more locked down for longer than most European countries - Google Mobility Trends, for example, show many more people going back to work much earlier in Germany - but had a slower decline in infections. The most likely explanation is that social factors - much poorer sick pay and isolation pay in Britain than in Germany, and other social factors - had greater weight than simple how-much-is-banned lockdown intensity.

Some suggest that the present lockdown in Britain could get us near zero within three months. International evidence makes us doubt that. A strict lockdown in February 2020 and borders semi-closed since then might have kept virus levels low in Britain, but in any case things are different from here and now.

In the second surge of the virus in Victoria, Australia, the peak active infection rate was about one-25th of what we have in Britain now. Yet it took Victoria three or four months of lockdown to get that surge near zero, despite a stricter border closure than even the heaviest policing could ensure in Britain, and despite housing conditions, for example, much more favourable than Britain's.

The figure 25 may overstate, because there's been more testing in Britain than in Australia. Even if not, I don't say it would take 25 times longer here than Victoria for plain lockdown to reach "zero" - that is, six to eight years of lockdown.

It would surely take much longer than Victoria... if it were even possible in a country with borders naturally as "leaky" as Britain's.

What about borders? We in Workers' Liberty have said that we are against closing borders, even where that is logistically possible; but, at least while infection levels are high, we do want quarantining at borders. New Zealand and Australia have quarantining, but they also have rules that you can't get in at all unless you're a citizen or a resident - or, of course, a big-shot foreign investor or a tennis star or something like that. We're against those rules, but we're for quarantining.

I don't want to be glib. The quarantining we call for can't work unless movement is hugely reduced. If Britain had even one-tenth the usual number of people coming into this country each day, and 10 days quarantine, then we'd need a quarantine city of almost a million residents and staff. How are you going to build that in a lockdown?

We recognise that what we're supporting here is not costless, not harm-free, and very imperfect. Britain has 10,000 truck drivers coming in each day, and I don't know how you could quarantine all the drivers without making it impossible for even the most essential parts of social life to function.

What worries me about ZeroCovid here is that on the one hand its pitch is that we should copy the countries whose actual common factor has been rigidly closed borders (not strict lockdowns) - and on the other it says very little about borders.

It just says that people coming in should be screened, presumably with lateral flow tests which give quick results, and quarantined "where necessary". That must mean: when they test positive. That may become workable if the lateral flow tests become much better. As it is, with even a small fraction of normal traffic, that would mean hundreds of infected people each day missed by the tests and coming straight to meet the people they've come to visit. Of course, arguably no quarantine system in a country with natural borders as leaky as Britain's will do much better.

The improvement with a good quarantine system is worthwhile, but it's not Zero Covid. And it's not New Zealand, where everyone is quarantined, and there were many days last summer where no-one, literally no-one, entered the country.

Third worry: the downsides of lockdown.

The ZeroCovid statement does criticise what they call "crude" police enforcement - and I guess they mean something like what there was in Spain and France in spring 2020, over a million arrests in each country in the first weeks of lockdown. But no government can enforce a long lockdown without quite a lot of arrests.

Again: about two-thirds of school students in the USA have now had no school, or almost none, for more or less a full year, and there's no end to that in sight. Lots of people in many countries have been unable to meet their friends and family for a very long time. Lots of people have lost jobs. If you're doing a lockdown in the real world, in a capitalist world, that is bound to happen. We can mitigate it, for a short term, and if we can keep the labour movement a factor in the situation, but it will happen.

It's one thing to accept that lockdowns, even fairly strict lockdowns, are necessary, for limited periods. It's another to make demanding that the government impose full-on lockdown, and for much longer than any country has done yet, our central policy.

Fourth worry: vaccines. Vaccines aren't the worry, they're a good thing. My worry is that the ZeroCovid policy is written ignoring vaccines.

I'll just mention two points here. Firstly, socialists should have something to say about vaccine production and distribution.

Secondly: Suppose - and it's not far-fetched - that vaccines are pretty good at preventing serious illness and death, but reduce transmission much less, so they don't get us anywhere near ZeroCovid.

So after widespread vaccination Covid is still around, but it has a lot fewer deaths than flu, say. People get Covid, but very few die. In that scenario, do we really want to advocate that everything stays locked down - there are no schools, you can't visit your family and friends, there's no in-person social life - more or less indefinitely? And why? Not particularly to save lives, but just to try to get transmission down to zero.

The fifth worry is the one that ties it all together: what the labour movement does.

In a full lockdown the labour movement does very little. Workers are all stuck at home, there are no trade union meetings, no demonstrations, no workplace action, nothing like that.

You can get, and we did get in spring 2020, some collective refusals of unsafe work areas in the few workplaces which are open, which win safety improvements there, which win a measure of workers' control. But nothing happens anywhere else.

The streets, by definition, are in the hands of the police, because no-one else is allowed to go there except for emergency purposes. So an indefinite full lockdown means, essentially, the labour movement dispersing, and each of us, from our homes, by social media or something, asking the government and the police to control the virus.

Some measure of that is unavoidable, given the realities. In this pandemic there is some measure to which we have to rely on lobbying the government from a distance and hoping that for example the threat of losing votes when elections are held again will have some grip.

But we want as little as possible of that of that immobilisation of the labour movement. For example, in anything less than a full-on surge of the virus, it is better to have school workers in schools winning measures like rotas, effective testing, PPE, extra buildings, better ventilation, things like that, than to have school workers sat at home hoping that the police do a good job of stopping kids going out onto the streets and socialising with their friends.

In March 2020 we said that the labour movement must act as an essential service in a lockdown. The labour movement still has to be out there, making itself an active agent in the social measures needed in this pandemic - and still out there, even if there are lockdown rules, as there have been, saying that we shouldn't be there.

Only the labour movement can win the social solidarity we need to underpin mutual aid. Let's unite - Workers' Liberty, Safe and Equal, ZeroCovid, anyone else in the left and labour movement who's willing - to win that social solidarity, and in the first place isolation pay.

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