To curb Covid: isolation pay, requisition Big Pharma, workers' control

Submitted by martin on 1 June, 2021 - 3:09 Author: Martin Thomas
Covid variants

Under the noise, the same sort of short-sighted Covid policies are back again. It is down to the labour movement to force effective policies against a third surge of the virus.

Turning against his former patron Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings has declared that Covid blunders in 2020 shows that "in any sensible rational government, it is completely crazy that [Cummings himself] should have been in such a senior position, in my personal opinion. I'm not smart..."

Too true. Infections have been increasing again in Britain since about 7 May. Hospitalisations are now increasing again, and also deaths and probably "long Covid" cases. They will increase less (maybe very much less) than they would have done without the vaccinations. But they will increase. And the Tories continue to flounder and bluster.

The Seychelles, with the highest vaccination rate in the world and almost no Covid until early 2021 (because it is remote islands), has had cases and deaths rising since it reopened for tourist business at the end of 2020 and then more widely in March 2021. Since the start of 2021, it has had Covid deaths, relative to its small population, equivalent to some 24,000 in the UK, and counting. Vaccines are effective, but not 100%.

Britain's new surge is down to the B.1.617.2 ("Delta") variant first identified in India. Without good quarantine measures, that variant will spread across Europe, and wider, as the B.1.1.7 variant ("Alpha", in the WHO's new listing) did in late 2020.

Reopening pubs and cafés indoors on 17 May was reckless. Easing restrictions further on 21 June would be doubly so.

It’s not just about restrictions. Restrictions are necessary, but socially costly; and their effect (and cost) depends on social measures. Argentina had maybe the world’s longest lockdown in 2020, and has a cumulative Covid death rate not much less than Brazil’s.

• Millions of workers are still denied isolation pay. In March 2020, almost no care home workers had isolation pay. After much campaigning, still 20% of those workers lack isolation pay. Test Centre workers have been promised isolation pay only recently (thanks to efforts by the Safe and Equal campaign), and it remains to be seen how well the promises will be met.

• The Tories had run the NHS for years on a rule of maximum cost-cutting to allow "just getting by" in normal times, with run-down reserves of PPE and no spare capacity. Campaigners had warned for years that even a bad flu season would swamp hospitals. Now the government is refusing the NHS extra money to deal with backlogs, let alone to expand and build in leeway. It is saying NHS workers should get only 1% pay rise.

• Social care, too, was run on a rule of cost-cutting, made worse by almost complete privatisation and high casualisation, low pay, for the workforce. The government has not even produced its promised "plan" for social care, let alone taken social care into the public sector and given its staff NHS-level pay and conditions, as it should do.

• The International Monetary Fund, of all institutions, has published a plan to end the pandemic within a year if covid precautions are sustained for that year and vaccination is accelerated. For now, vaccine nationalism and Big Pharma profit-drives rule. The world vaccination rate has inched up, to 0.38 doses per 100 people per day in the last fortnight, when it was 0.23 per 100 in April, but it is still far too low. The IMF plan relies on nudging governments and Big Pharma. Solidarity calls for the requisitioning of Big Pharma and an emergency drive to expand vaccine production and vaccine programs.

• Unless border quarantine rules are uniform and well-resourced, they will always respond "too late", as Britain's did with B.1.617.2 ("Delta"). The looser borders in Europe and South America, a boon in usual times, obviously make efficient quarantining more difficult than for islands like New Zealand. Yet public provision of quarantine accommodation can be radically improved. Only now, sixteen months on, is the British government thinking about quarantine accommodation for people who would otherwise be "self-isolating" in crowded housing.

Ventilation which frequently replaces indoors air by outdoors air will reduce infection risks. School workers' unions in some US cities have won strict ventilation checks in schools. Very little has been done about ventilation in schools and workplaces in Britain. We need workers' control of workplace safety, with risk assessments revised to fit new variants. The official Health and Safety Executive has been run down by the Tories over the years; did zero (yes, zero) workplace inspections in the first surge of Covid; and still classifies Covid as not a "serious" health risk in workplaces.

The government has spent many billions on business loans and handouts, furlough money, and pay-outs to Test and Trace and PPE contractors. Much has had minimal effect on infections: it puts cash into the pockets of the Tories' cronies, shows the government as "doing something", and does so in a way that minimises the risk of costly better worker standards for the future, like improved sick pay.

Gradual lockdown-easing (notably including school reopening) was relatively successful in Europe in early summer 2020, and in Britain until 17 May. Only in July-August, when schools closed again and bars, cafés, and tourist industries were reopened, did a new rise start. That new rise generated the B.1.1.7 ("Alpha") variant, and that in turn made the rise explosive. B.1.617.2 ("Delta") threatens to do the same again.

The record so far suggests that relatively soft (and so long-term sustainable) covid restrictions, like Europe in early summer 2020 or Britain before 17 May this year, may keep infections down until vaccine coverage is extended worldwide - at least if coupled with good social infrastructure and social measures.

Of all the world's countries with permeable, high-traffic natural borders (not remote islands or the like), relatively high numbers of elderly people, and good health and death statistics, Norway, Finland, and Denmark stand out for the lowest excess deaths in the pandemic. (Norway and Denmark have actually had fewer deaths than their long-term norms.) The most likely reason is not special virtues of their current governments. Norway's is conservative, Denmark's and Finland's are right-wing social democratic. All three countries have been at the looser end of the spectrum of European lockdown measures. Rather, longer-term better social infrastructure (health, housing, sick pay, elderly care, etc.) resulting from longer-term greater strength of labour movements.

As a new Covid surge develops, a renewed drive from the left to impose better social measures becomes urgent. Against the pandemic, we all need to be able to help each other, and for that we need social solidarity in the form of rights, guarantees, and workers' control!

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