Covid’s coming home

As COVID restrictions are brought to an end in England, Roy Wilkes analyses the risk to the country, as Boris Johnson prepares to let the pandemic rip.


The U.K. government is refusing to budge on its intention to end almost all Covid restrictions in England on July 19, despite growing condemnation. Almost all mitigation measures are being lifted, including the requirement to wear masks on public transport and in indoor public spaces.

In a letter to the Lancet last week, 122 scientists and medics described the government’s plan as “dangerous and premature”. 

The letter highlights the danger of letting Covid rip before the NHS has recovered from the previous waves, and while its staff are exhausted and demoralised. But this conjunction, of a third wave growing while the NHS is struggling to cope with it, is no unfortunate accident. Underfunding, undermining, and overwhelming public services are a tried and tested prelude to privatising them. 

Delaying the reopening by a few weeks, and introducing the mitigation measures listed in the Lancet letter, seems like a no-brainer. So why is the government so determined to recklessly press ahead with its July 19 ‘freedom day’? The answer lies in the nature of capital itself. And as a global centre of finance capital, the U.K. is particularly sensitive to its imperatives.

Keynes betrayed the ingrained short-termism of bourgeois economics with his famous aphorism, “in the long run we are all dead”, which is proving to be more prophetic than he perhaps intended. Immediate profit and rapid accumulation are all that count. Sunak probably knew full well that last summer’s “eat out to help out” would be damaging in the long run, to the capitalist economy as much as to public health, but the pull of short-term gain was just too strong to resist. Blind optimism has become the analytic tool of choice for the personifications of capital, particularly when it comes to dealing with ecological crises of its own making. 

For capital, “time is everything, humanity is nothing,” to paraphrase Marx. Turnover time must be constantly pushed down towards zero, with time and motion studies, time management analyses, time accountancy, and just-in-time production and distribution systems oiling its descent. We are forced to internalise capital’s tyranny of time with a permanently accelerating pace of life, with speed-ups and deadlines, but also with a desire for ‘labour saving’ devices, for ever-faster cars and planes, for instantaneous communication, for next day delivery. What do we want? Instant gratification. When do we want it? Now. 

Capital can tolerate no barriers to its own expanded self-reproduction, and therefore also to its own unfettered circulation. This imperative is central to bourgeois ideology and often expressed as a desire for “freedom”.  Not freedom as genuine human emancipation of course, which would be freedom from relations of domination and subordination. Bourgeois freedom is precisely the opposite of real freedom. It is the freedom to perpetuate generalised alienation and reified social relations, unhindered and indefinitely; it is the freedom to buy and sell, to produce for-profit and to consume; above all, it is the freedom to exploit. 

But how does capital respond to situations like the one we face now, where unfettered circulation spreads long Covid and destroys lives? The loudest proponents of bourgeois ideology, the libertarian petty-bourgeois, are quite clear on this. As a much-liked comment beneath a Financial Times article on the reopening puts it: “The answer is simple. Let them die.” 

There can’t be too many deaths of course. Not all at once, and certainly not in public. That might be politically destabilising, at least until the population is sufficiently desensitised to mass death. But hundreds of thousands of people suffering the multiple organ damages and disabilities of long Covid can be quite safely hidden from view. And even our abhorrence of mass death can be gradually dissolved in successive waves of inevitability. The survival of capital (at least until it has collapsed human civilisation completely) will ultimately rely on building herd immunity to a disease that really would kill it: human empathy. 

There is always an undercurrent of eugenics within bourgeois ideology, usually hidden from view, but occasionally breaking cover. How else can the ruling class, and the aspiring petty bourgeoisie, justify its enormous social privilege, other than on the grounds of some perceived superiority, the proof of which is its own eminent ‘success’? The poor and weak are there to serve the strong and powerful. And if the weakest of all die out, for example during a viral pandemic, well that’s too bad, it’s just ‘nature’. Those who blame the ecological crisis on “overpopulation” pander to this dangerous nonsense. The openly expressed eugenics of the far right of the ruling class – Philip Windsor’s greatest wish, for example, was “to be reincarnated as a virus” so he could deal with “overpopulation” – is lapped up by the libertarian petty-bourgeois, and gels nicely with their desire for ‘freedom’. It isn’t difficult to see how the petty-bourgeois response to the combined metabolic ruptures we are now seeing could easily degenerate into ecofascism. 

Whenever capital faces a natural barrier that might impede circulation and accumulation, its first line of attack is to deny its existence and even to try and undermine the credibility of those who are warning of its danger. Rachel Carson was defamed and abused for exposing the damaging effects of DDT in the sixties. Carl Sagan suffered the same fate for upsetting the military-industrial complex by explaining how thermonuclear war would lead to nuclear winter. The coal corporations viciously attacked Gene Likens when he revealed the primary cause of acid rain: “It was bad,” he said. “It was real bad. I had a contract put out on me.” Ben Santer, Michael Mann, Greta Thurnberg, and many others have been vilified and slandered for daring to tell the truth about climate change. And just last week, Indie Sage scientist Susan Michie was ambushed by Richard Madelely on Good Morning Britain and subjected to hostile questioning, not about the science of Covid, which is what she had been invited there to talk about, but about her membership of the Communist Party. 

The second line of attack is deflection, to push us away from seeking a collective response, towards an emphasis on individual responsibility. So the only response to climate change that is acceptable to capital is one that encourages individuals to think about (and perhaps even feel guilty about not acting upon) a range of behaviours: flying less, avoiding meat, and buying electric cars, for example, while allowing the fossil fuel corporations to carry on with business as usual. So it is now with Covid. Regulations on wearing face masks must be lifted because retaining them would conflict with the illusion that the crisis is over; it must be left to individuals to decide whether to wear them or not. When it comes to the workplace, employers get to decide on what mitigation measures, if any, to put in place which is another way of saying that protections for workers must be withdrawn so that normal relations of domination and subordination can be resumed. 

So what do we do now?

Those at risk of avoidable harm from a viral pandemic have an inalienable right to be protected by collective public health measures. Workers have an inalienable right to breath clean air that is free from harmful pathogens. It is only through collective action that we can enforce these rights, and make our communities and our workplaces, including our schools, safe. The NEU action to close schools in January and the current PCS action at DVLA in Cardiff are examples that must be generalised and emulated. 

The experiment in herd-immunity-through-infection that is being inflicted on our children is a particularly pernicious example of flagrant government irresponsibility that must be vigorously resisted. The six-week summer holiday gives plenty of time to make classrooms safe – with ventilation systems, CO2 monitors, reduced class sizes, the retention of ‘bubbles’, and the extension of the vaccination program to teenagers. It also gives the education unions time to build support for collective action in the event of the government not implementing those measures. 

There is significant and growing opposition to the government’s plans. Mobilising that opposition as a street movement would help give workers the confidence to take collective workplace action. The reticence to take street action over Covid, on the grounds that it might be perceived to be hypocritical, is misplaced, and debilitating for the movement. We must overcome this reticence and build street protest action to demand an elimination strategy, in defiance of restrictive legislation if necessary.

But as well as fighting to protect our own public health conditions, we must also focus on Johnson’s shameful refusal to support the lifting of vaccine patents, and his government’s equally shameful cuts to international aid. Many of the poorest countries of the global south have vaccinated fewer than 10% of their populations, some less than 1%. None of us are safe until we are all safe, and acknowledging that means smashing intellectual property rights in vaccines, as well as fighting for a massive program of emergency aid so that Covid can be eliminated globally. 

We cannot accept ‘learning to live with the virus’ any more than we would accept ‘learning to live’ with smallpox, measles, or polio. Covid, like every other aspect of the accelerating ecological crisis of capital, is entirely a product of the dominant social relations of production. Overthrowing those relations, and building a genuinely sustainable social metabolic relation to nature, is the most important lesson to be learned from this crisis, and one moreover that can only be learned by engaging in the struggle itself. 

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Roy Wilkes is a socialist activist in the North West and chair of the Zero Covid Campaign.

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