‘The biggest crisis of our times’ The Ecology and Economics of the Pandemic

15 February 2021

Dave Kellaway reports from the Zero Covid campaign’s packed online webinar on 13 February 2021.

‘The pandemic is the biggest crisis of our times. It has shone a light on the inequalities of class and race. The awful death rate is not inevitable. Look at New Zealand or Vietnam.’

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and a founder of the Zero Covid campaign, opened the half-day meeting with these remarks. Over 250 activists came together for a deeper analysis of the ecological and economic aspects of the pandemic. More watched the live stream on YouTube.

Activism is the watchword of this campaign. It was not a rally with an interminable list of worthy speakers. After succinct introductions, the meeting was swiftly reorganised into breakout groups. For about 40 minutes everyone had the chance to ask questions and contribute in smaller forums of 15 or so participants. Each group had a facilitator and secretary so points could be fed into follow-up plenary sessions with the keynote speakers. Issues were presented by representatives from each group.

The organisers addressed accessibility issues by making sure transcript/subtitles were available. The Chat function was suspended for individuals to avoid overloading of information and a Google document system was organised instead for comments. I was impressed on how smoothly the technical side was organised. During the break, Pauline Bradley provided some stirring songs.

Marxist epidemiology

Rob Wallace kicked off proceedings. Rob is an evolutionary epidemiologist with the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps in the USA. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, written some years before the pandemic, and now Dead Epidemiologists: on the origins of Covid-19, just out and covering events until the middle of last year. He is acknowledged as one of the leading specialists in the field. He explained that diseases are ecological in origin but also fundamentally socially determined.

Capitalism is the dominant social system and the Ebola crisis in West Africa showed clearly how neoliberalism created the conditions for its devastating impact.

The way we live creates the opportunities and means for pathogens to spread. Capitalism is the dominant social system and the Ebola crisis in West Africa showed clearly how neoliberalism created the conditions for its devastating impact. Agribusiness plantations were established there and this broke down the barrier between wild species and humans. Bats flourished in the new environment and spread the disease. Cities and industrialised animal-rearing farms provide great breeding grounds for viruses. Flows of capital investment have led these changes globally.

In the British case, insiders are talking of ‘the Bojo mutation’. Johnson’s failure to suppress the virus had a direct impact on the way the pathogen developed. In other words, it was not the molecular properties of the virus that was decisive, but the politics of the government.

Climate breakdown

Julia Steinberger, Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change at Lausanne University, and Lead Author for the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report also spoke in the first session. (Julia writes at profjuliasteinberger.wordpress.com). She stressed the potential difference between global warming rising by 1.5% compared to 2 or 3%. For instance, there is a fighting chance of stopping the complete extinction of coral reefs if the temperature rise is held at 1.5%, but not if it goes to 2% greater. The problem is that all the indicators are suggesting we are heading for a 3% increase in global warming by mid-century. This would mean a quarter of all invertebrates, 44% of all plants, and 49% of insects would become extinct.

Julia explained how the countries responsible for most carbon emissions, i.e. industrialised North America and Europe, did not match up with those facing the worst impacts, i.e. the Global South.

She finished with an amazing slide of an internal memo of the Exxon oil corporation dating from 1982 which clearly accepted a link between carbon emissions and global warming. They knew, but they did nothing.

System change

The breakout discussions and the follow-up plenary were rich in questions and ideas:

  • The Zero Covid campaign should work with other organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and Black Lives Matter.
  • It is important to talk about system change and how making moral individual choices about how we live is not as important as politically organising against the corporations and systems responsible.
  • Should we narrow down our campaigning focus to one or two issues – for example, lack of support for people needing to self-isolate. This linked to another point about putting out simple messages that people can readily understand.
  • We should take up the issue of antibiotics in animal husbandry and how this links to agribusiness providing an environment for pathogens to spread.
  • Diane Abbott said she had become used to seeing needless deaths in the Global South but was shocked to see the sheer number of deaths in care homes here.
  • We need to link reforms now, and tactical campaigns around them, with the longer-term strategic aim of bringing all the movements together to change the global capitalist system, for a red-green transformation. Piecemeal reform is not going to cut it.

Summing up, Rob Wallace picked up on the need for both strategic and more immediate demands. We have to reject industrial agriculture because living things are not widgets. We need to fight to heal the rift between humanity and the natural world, and the question is urgent since we are approaching a crossroads where human extinction is posed. Movements in the Global North have to forge alliances with all those in the Global South who want to fight for a red-green transition.

Julia Steinberger said we had to see where struggles can become aligned. We need to put human health first and reject the economy vs health false opposition. She made some good points about the relationship between individuals changing and collective action. Any action to hold back climate change will inevitably mean fundamental disruption to our individual lifestyles too, e.g. in terms of meat-eating or travel. So it is not an ‘either-or’ but a ‘both-and’ approach we need to adopt. We have to recognise that we are never going back to normal; we cannot just go home and reset. We are never going back to the Holocene period. Today, in the Anthropocene period, where humankind is remodelling the planet, we have a long-term struggle, the battle of our lifetimes, to save humanity.

Economic impact

The second half of the meeting concentrated on the economics of the pandemic. Grace Blakeley, a staff writer at Tribune magazine and author of The Corona Crash: how the pandemic will change capitalism and Stolen: how to save the world from financialisation, explained how the pandemic was affecting capitalism as a whole, how the system was adapting, and how we need to understand this in order to respond appropriately.

Crises usually result from a failure of coordination. Capitalism comes through its crises through greater centralisation.

Centralisation is the key concept. Crises usually result from a failure of coordination. Capitalism comes through its crises through greater centralisation. Today we see a capitalist ‘centralisation on steroids’, with the huge amounts of public finance being used to save mega-businesses and subsidise jobs. Some people can be deluded into thinking this greater centralisation is a sort of ‘socialist’ intervention. Some Corbynistas have said things like ‘Johnson is implementing what Jeremy would have done’. Completely wrong! Centralisation is about increasing the power of the state and the corporations, and that power will be used against working people.

There are four kinds of centralisation at work:

  • Big corporate monopolies are getting bigger (e.g. Amazon, Netflix, the big food distributors).
  • The economy is becoming even financialised (cf. the Gamestop affair).
  • The state is providing massive levels of ‘corporate welfare’.
  • And the global system is becoming more centralised in the Global North, with flows of capital from the Global South.

All four processes of centralisation are sites of struggle. The big issue is not just more state spending but developing working-class agency which can act to democratise society. Working-class here means the overwhelming majority, including many different, overlapping minorities.

Michael Roberts, a British economist who worked in the City of London and has written several books on Marxist economics, including The Great Recession (2009), delivered a heavyweight statistical analysis of the crisis. British deaths per million at 1709 is ‘world-beating’ and contrasts with Japanese and Chinese figures at the other end of the spectrum. The world slump is the worst for 90 years and production will not recover from 1919 levels before 2021 or probably 2022. Poverty in the Global South, based on an income of $1.90, is going up after years of improvement. Britain has seen the largest economic contraction in the G7 and the worst for 300 years.

A crucial point is that there is no trade-off between ‘lives and livelihoods’ (i.e. lockdown vs economic production).

A crucial point is that there is no trade-off between ‘lives and livelihoods’ (i.e. lockdown vs economic production). Countries like China, Vietnam, and New Zealand that have suppressed the virus have suffered much less of an economic slump. Unemployment in Britain is likely to reach 7.5%, with benefits are among the lowest in Europe. People working from home are often doing okay, and many higher earners are saving money, but others are losing their jobs and sinking into poverty. Class inequalities are widening. The increase in the personal wealth of the ten richest people in the world would pay for vaccines for all and a lot of the extra benefits needed. Unsurprisingly, what the ruling class calls ‘social unrest’ – and we call ‘class struggle’ – is on the rise.

Michael suggested several ways the economy could be reset:

  • A global plan for full employment and increases in pensions and benefits.
  • Massive public investment.
  • Phasing out fossil fuels.
  • Cancel debts of the Global South
  • Close all tax-havens.
  • Public ownership of major financial companies and other corporations.

Tory budget and popular action

Among the many issues raised in the discussion around the economic impact of the pandemic were:

  • What about a campaign focus on Sunak’s March budget?
  • How do we fit together economic demands and Zero Covid?
  • Isn’t a universal basic income (UBI) a good idea to allow people not to go to work if ill and to alleviate the big rise in unemployment?
  • The importance of working out short- and long-term demands for the campaign.
  • Should the furlough question be the next immediate priority?
  • How do we respond to the latest Tory turn on NHS reorganisation: we are against privatisation but greater centralisation can also be a problem.

Summing up the discussion, Grace Blakeley raised the issue of over-focussing on the policies we want to see rather than on how we can achieve them. The difference between a liberal opposition and a socialist one is that we see the need to change the structure, the whole system, in the interests of humanity. The system works for the interests of those at the top. Class struggle is crucial – we need to go beyond regulating capitalism. Our narrative should put the many against the few and labour against capital. We need to disrupt capitalist harmony and construct agency for people. Working people have lost a sense of their agency, as a political subject challenging capitalism. Our messaging has to emphasise developing that political subject, not just calling on the government to spend more money. We need to disrupt capitalism and really fight for state power.

Class struggle is crucial – we need to go beyond regulating capitalism. Our narrative should put the many against the few and labour against capital.

Michael Roberts reiterated the need to raise demands over test and trace, lockdown effectiveness, support arrangements, and vaccine roll-out. Put simply, we should be saying ‘workers should not pay for Covid and no trade-off between lives and livelihoods’. He said he was not necessarily opposed to discussion about a UBI, but thought that calling for universal basic services was very important. We need a social economy that meets people’s needs and reconnects humanity with the planet.

The meeting ended with campaign organisers reminding us of the upcoming day of action, where we may be able to combine some public actions – social distancing and lockdown rules permitting – with online work. People interested in getting involved should visit the Zero Covid campaign website and join the Monday (15 February) evening online activist meeting.

Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

Join the discussion