When Edward Jenner, a country doctor, discovered how to inoculate against smallpox – a discovery that would defeat one of the great scourges of the world – he could not imagine some two centuries later his countrymen and women would consider “living with an illness” a mere inconvenience and rail against those dispensing vaccines to protect them and others. That is our fate when irrational and dishonest arguments are leveraged for the destruction of health systems to permit capitalism’s accumulation of profit to endure at any cost.
To paraphrase Jenner’s contemporary Alexander Pope, “And wretches die that shopkeepers may dine”. Vaccination was opposed vociferously throughout the 19th and 20th centuries – in Jenner’s day large protests in London featured placards bearing the slogan “We will not become cows”, referencing Jenner’s use of cowpox. It was largely as a result of such protests that successive British governments never passed legislation requiring the population to be compulsorily inoculated. However, by the early 20th century most accepted vaccination as a social good and when the inventor of the polio vaccine, then a huge blight, provided it to society for free, millions rushed to get it.
As well as being contested on the basis of misinformation, vaccination has also long been regarded as part of the canon of being a sensible and reasonable citizen. We owe a basic obligation to one another to permit everyone a chance to flourish, a debt that is not opposed to liberty but the basis for liberty. The freedom to do harm without consequence is rightly recognised as no freedom at all. Still, vaccines were never regarded as the only solution to disease, the sole such obligation, and other methods were always required to augment them despite the rhetoric of the current Tory government in the UK and similar regimes elsewhere.
When Covid-19 first hit China, it was obvious that unless contained early on it would go global and with devastating impacts. The precedent had been set by the flu pandemic of 1918-20, which killed more people than died in the First World War and left millions disabled. The steady progress of the new virus through Italy, where many Brits visited on skiing holidays in the winter and spring of 2020, gave an indication of what was in store for the rest of Europe. However, in the UK, British exceptionalism and pseudoscience ruled the corridors of Westminster. Some early testing on cases was carried out in February 2020, but dropped as “impractical”.
Under these conditions, Johnson veered towards the theory of “herd immunity”, influenced by both eugenics and the pressure from Sunak and others to ensure nothing was done to stop the wheels of business grinding on. Johnson is a man known to talk disparagingly of those with “low IQs” and to laud the notion that when organising a society, “the harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top”. Unsurprisingly, then, no measures were taken and, as Cummings outlined in his diaries, it was devil take the hindmost with even the government’s Chief Scientist admitting herd immunity was the official policy. Initially Johnson joked he would have no problem shaking the hands of anyone he met and later on it is alleged he privately quipped “let the bodies pile high”.
However, by early March it was becoming apparent hospitalisations and fatalities were rising too dramatically even by these callous standards and government advisers, among them Cummings and the scientists of SAGE, warned Johnson that the situation was becoming a disaster requiring urgent government action. So in mid-March 2020 the Tory government reluctantly called for a lockdown and brought in furlough to carry over businesses most impacted by closures, mainly in hospitality. No measures were taken to protect frontline workers, many from racially marginalised backgrounds and living in multigenerational housing. Moreover, personal protective equipment (PPE) was not sufficiently available and there was a desperate scramble for supplies.
As a result of the combination of incompetence and maliciousness from the top, thousands of nurses, bus drivers, delivery drivers and others needlessly died in the first wave of infections – many alone and in terrible circumstances, unable to be visited by even family. The lucky passed away in hospitals, but numerous perished at home without medical support. The example of care homes was typical of the government’s eugenicist policies in action. Elderly people with covid were discharged from hospitals and returned to unprepared residences to infect all of the other vulnerable inhabitants. Worse, as the situation developed many GPs and others would refuse to attend to this unfolding disaster.
This was an example of the “useless eaters” of Nazi ideology being allowed to die. One article in the Telegraph shockingly reported on how much the government had saved in pensions as a result of elderly casualties. Meanwhile at a meeting with business people designed to arrange supplies of much needed ventilators for hospitals, Johnson laughingly told the meeting it was “operation last gasp”. This demonstrates a shocking callousness from the Tory government towards the thousands fighting desperately to live and their care staff in the NHS.
Not long after, Johnson himself went down with Covid; thanks to the attentive care he received he successfully recovered, and would praise the two nurses who tended to him in hospital. Tellingly, one of them, a few months later, announced she was leaving the NHS due to the low regard in which health workers were held by the government. We now know that, despite the strict lockdown regulations, Johnson was soon celebrating his recovery with his cronies in Downing Street.
Today we return more concertedly to the policy of eugenics, under the misguided hokum that the vaccine alone is sufficient. Vulnerable people will be confined, unsupported, to their homes; Covid positive workers will face the choice of potential destitution or infecting their co-workers; and more people will needlessly die. With nearly 200 dying per day the lives of those considered surplus to requirements are lost and it’s reminiscent of the scene in the film Metropolis where the workers are fed into the machine called “Moloch” which in this case is capitalist profit.
The pseudoscientific nonsense spouted by governments and establishment scientists alike is that Covid will become endemic. This obscures the fact that many diseases that are endemic in some places, such as malaria, kill large numbers of people in those places.
This approach must be fought, which means the left cannot let its attention stray from the pandemic crisis even as we are faced by new crises on every horizon – from Russia’s military actions in Ukraine to the cost-of-living crisis to Johnson’s government’s increasing attack on rights to protest, which is itself legislatively linked to the right-wing assault on the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community.
The only way to adequately defend against so many attacks from so many directions is to build a united movement of the exploited and oppressed. With every new frontier of struggle we on the left (taken in its broadest sense) are increasingly spread thin, but equally more and more people will have their ability to live well challenged, and can make common cause. What seems an impossible situation can become the very basis for transforming defensive struggles into an offensive one against the inhuman systems that assail us all.
However, this cannot happen if we abandon the fight against Covid, if we go along with the government’s agenda to distract from the spread of the disease, an agenda buttressed by far-right street movements. We do not have the luxury of such a false pragmatism; if we give ground on this, or anything else, we will embolden reactionaries to strike harder wherever it is we do choose to defend humanity against the onslaught. Only by being unrelenting in our commitment to a world freed of this horrible disease by the twinned resources of human ingenuity and solidarity, can we hope to succeed at all.
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