Why radical pandemic containment is urgently needed

5 January 2021

Please note this article was originally in German and written for a German-speaking audience so some of the terminology and examples may be unfamiliar to British readers. The original article can be found here.

Left groups in general and the Die Linke have apparently had great difficulties this far in developing a coherent position on the pandemic. So far, no left organization has put forward a clear set of measures that would contain the spread of the Sars-CoV-2 virus. On the other hand, the position prevailing among natural scientists is that a radical containment strategy is necessary despite the start of the vaccination campaigns. Strangely enough, left-wing organizations ignore this scientific evidence.

This is the second part of a three-part series by Christian Zeller on radical pandemic containment. Part 1 (which we have translated) can be found here.

This ignorance is a grave failure and will make it even more difficult to mobilize people on a consistent course against the ravages of the pandemic and government policies. The increasing number of mutations in the Sars-CoV-2 virus is making it even more difficult to contain the pandemic. The new virus variant B.1.1.7 is currently causing the infections in southern England and London to skyrocket. But the virus knows no borders. There is a race against time. The virus is spreading much faster than people can get vaccinated. A European containment strategy based on solidarity is urgently needed.

Access to the pandemic

Although the media reports on the pandemic every day, there is hardly any public discussion about the goals of the pandemic policy and measures to suppress it. At the beginning of the pandemic, most governments envisioned herd immunity. But as the hospitals filled with sick and dead, they corrected their course and initiated hasty lockdowns. Since then, they have zig-zagged from one measure to another. Their clear goal: to get through the pandemic to the point of mass vaccination, with as few restrictions as possible on profit.

We can distinguish three overall approaches to the pandemic. These three perspectives have quite different justifications and, depending on the social and class-political position of their adherents, accompanied by different measures to cushion their effects socially and economically.

Herd immunity: The infection is allowed to spread through the population on the assumption that immunization will gradually develop. This strategy has failed. Even the governments that initially propagated it have deviated from it, at least in public. Elitist doctors and academics are aggressively promoting this orientation in public with the so-called Great Barrington Declaration (October 4, 2020). This is supported in the US by reactionary hyper-liberal think tanks such as the American Institute for Economic Research and supported in Europe by the similarly oriented Hayek Institute. Grotesquely enough, various people close to Die Linke are sympathetic to this deluded view because they massively underestimate or even negate the danger of the Sars-CoV-2 virus and only assess the government’s restrictive measures and lockdowns as a major manoeuvre to enforce authoritarianism – and thus oppose them. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that this strategy would massively increase the number of casualties and would almost guarantee a collapse of the health system. The disadvantaged in our society would suffer the most.

Slowing down the contagion up to mass vaccination: Most European governments are now following the course of trying to restricting infections of the Sars-CoV-2 virus so that their health care systems are not overloaded. This course corresponds to the interests of the large corporations who want to let the circulation of capital run as undisturbed as possible. Only when capital moves can profits, i.e. surplus-value, be achieved through the labour “sucked” into the production process. That is why the lockdowns almost never restricted waged labour. In spring 2020, many companies shut down their production not because of lockdowns, but because their sales markets had collapsed. Also, governments use this strategy to try to balance different interests and moods amongst the population. This explains the sometimes-confusing differences between national and local governments run by the same political forces. However, when the contagion becomes too great and a social disaster threatens, governments inevitably and reluctantly resort to lockdown. The specific provisions and executions of these lockdowns often appear contradictory and arbitrary, which rightly makes many people angry. This course focuses on the fastest possible approval of vaccines and the rapid implementation of mass vaccination campaigns.

Die Linke ultimately follows this course, albeit with the main difference that it aims to cushion the consequences of this policy for wage earners, the poor, and women with numerous socio-political and economic support measures. There is no alternative to this limited course of containment to such an extent that not even anti-capitalist and socialist groups outside and within Die Linke, such as the Interventionist Left, marx21, ISO, SAV, and SOL, were able to define their own goals and a propose a corresponding strategy. These groups differ from Die Linke only in that they simply demand more extensive accompanying measures, especially at workplaces, and greater protection for the declassified. Some of these groups also emphasize that the trade unions must directly defend wage earners in relation to health and protection against infection. The SAV emphasizes that measures to contain the spread of the virus should be decided and implemented by the employees themselves.

Radical containment of the spread of the virus until each individual case can be traced: This position is gaining influence among scientists studying the spread of the virus. The point is to initiate a strategy and appropriate measures that allow the spread of the Sars-CoV-2 virus to be contained so that each individual case can be traced. Once this situation has been achieved, restrictive measures can be relaxed. Countries as diverse as New Zealand, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Vietnam have followed this course. Most have been successful with it and have long since relaxed the measures and have almost returned to normal. However, if infections reappear, they act decisively and consistently. Meanwhile, several socialist organizations, NGOs, and alliances in Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland are promoting this orientation and are trying to initiate a mass-effective campaign under the motto #ZeroCovid. With the increasing number of mutations, this strategy becomes even more urgent.

Pandemic as a class and gender issue

The pandemic and how to combat it affects people very unequally. People who work and live tightly packed together in poor conditions, the pandemic hits far more severely than those who can work at home. These are workers that are also badly paid and a high proportion of migrant workers. Employees in nursing, health care, care, teaching, in meat factories, and in some cases in logistics centres show an above-average frequency of infection. Statistical data on infections at the workplace are insufficiently collected. This fact alone is already an expression of power relations.

The measures to limit the spread of the virus, in turn, limit people’s lives in a very class- and gender-specific manner. They are completely geared towards maintaining the circulation of capital as freely as possible and forcing people to continue to work and burdening women with a large part of the additional care and educational work at home. It is precisely from this point of view that the unions and the left parties have failed completely.

They have hardly developed any concepts to protect workers and the unemployed and have hardly made specific demands that the rich and wealthy, corporations and banks must bear the costs of the pandemic. The central task of trade unions is to defend employees and, of course, their health. Instead of criticizing the companies for their inadequate protective measures, union leaderships often stood behind the companies and said that a lot had already been done, now we must wait and see whether the measures work. Instead of this subordination, the unions would have to develop and implement double protective measures “from below” in dialogue with the employees: to protect against infection and against the arbitrariness of the companies.

In view of the class and gender-specific impact caused by the pandemic and government measures, the restrictive measures taken by governments should be criticized. There are two criteria for this: Do you reduce the number of infections? Do they unilaterally disadvantage wage earners, the poor, and women?

Live with a pandemic or radically contain a pandemic

What is serious is that neither the trade unions nor progressive social movements, nor larger or smaller left organizations are aiming to develop their own policy towards the pandemic. In their statements, they usually call for action to be taken in favour of the wage earner, migrant workers, and the unemployed, and emphasize how women are specifically affected by lockdowns. But what is the goal in terms of the dynamics of the spread and containment of the pandemic itself?

I have read the statements of Die Linke and the anti-capitalist and socialist groups already mentioned since March 2020. With the exception of the 14 theses for a solidary pandemic policy by the editorial team of the magazine Prager Frühling and a deliberate and constructive criticism of it by Yaak Pabst in the magazine marx21, no statement can be found that explicitly expresses such a goal. Do you just want to reduce the number of infections a little, or reduce them more, or even eradicate the pandemic? Sebastian Rave makes an implicit statement on the SAV website, in that he rightly criticizes that the incidence of 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants per week is arbitrary and too high to make the cases understandable. This criticism is correct. Christian Haasen names different goals of the pandemic policy in the Socialist newspaper and states that, unlike New Zealand, the European countries have not decided to eradicate the Sars-CoV-2 virus. His arguments, which he subsequently developed, allow us to conclude that he is not criticizing the objectives of the European Union in principle, but rather the fact that government policy is causing a lot of collateral damage.

This means that none of the aforementioned anti-capitalist or socialist organizations has so far explicitly spoken out in favour of a radical containment of the pandemic or successful individual prosecution. I see the reasons for this in a self-limitation of one’s own demands because of one’s own weakness and in a fundamental misunderstanding of the social metabolism with nature. But I’ll try to explore this topic in another article.

It is tragic that socialists, too, make completely absurd and insane comparisons. In the January edition of the Socialist Newspaper Gerhard Klas corona deaths together with those from overheating, doubts the reduction in infections through lockdowns and thinks that too many deaths are recorded as corona deaths. All three claims are completely wrong. At the beginning of the pandemic, the corona deaths counted together with road traffic victims. Relativists – even in left-wing media – keep saying that they must equate Covid-19 with flu (whereby flu can also be potentially highly dangerous). All these comparisons amount to relativizing and playing down the pandemic. They testify to a lack of understanding of the pandemic, ignorance of the characteristics of a pandemic. A pandemic has its own dynamics. Why?

  • Viruses spread exponentially. As a result, many people underestimate the speed at which it spreads. The new Sars-CoV-2 virus strain B 117 has a 50 percent higher infection rate. This means that the infection curve becomes steeper even faster.
  • Viruses mutate. However, this also means that the more the viruses spread, the more frequently mutations with surprising properties occur. This can mean that the vaccinations are less effective or for a shorter time or, in the worst-case scenario no longer effective at all.
  • Viruses jump species boundaries. Using the example of the “mink factories” in Denmark, we found that humans transmitted the viruses to animals which then transfered them back to humans, which in turn can be associated with mutations.

Due to these facts and the already mentioned class and gender-specific effects of the pandemic and the inadequate government policy, a radical containment strategy is imperative.

Vaccination makes sense as part of a containment strategy, but it does not work immediately

Governments, the large corporations as well as the government and opposition parties are all fixated by the vaccination campaigns. They hope the pandemic nightmare will soon be over. Left organizations also long for the vaccine. This is already proving to be a grave error. Because the vaccinations are only delayed and, above all, they are globally very selective in alleviating the challenges and suffering. The following facts limit the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns:

  • Vaccination will be slow. The production capacity is not yet available. This is partly as a consequence of intellectual property rues but it is also because every factory must go through a complex testing and validation process. This takes time.
  • Only a minority of people will be vaccinated. The governments of the imperialist countries believe that in Africa it is enough to vaccinate 20 percent of the population.
  • The vaccinations are not allowed for children. But we now know that children can also pass the virus on.
  • It is currently unclear whether and to what extent vaccinations not only protect against disease but also prevent you from being infectious.
  • As mutations increase, there is a risk that vaccines will be less effective or no longer effective. Because the pandemic has already spread so much, further mutations will inevitably occur. Their properties and consequences are uncertain. The longer the spread of the virus is not radically suppressed, the more likely it is that mutations will prevail that will not be effective in the vaccination.

That means the vaccination campaigns make sense. However, it would be presumptuous and unrealistic to expect the vaccinations to solve the problem quickly. This is another reason to radically contain the spread of the virus.

Take scientific knowledge seriously

In this situation, the international appeal launched by several hundred scientists on December 19 presents an opportunity to openly discuss the goals of fighting pandemics and to implement a consistent reorientation. These scientists are calling for a Europe-wide coordinated radical containment of the Covid-19 pandemic (https://www.containcovid-pan.eu/).

The signatories of the appeal make three arguments.

  • First, the number of infections should be reduced to a maximum of ten Covid 19 cases per million people per day.
  • Second, a control strategy – at least 300 tests per million inhabitants per day – can be used to stabilize the low number of cases over the long term.
  • Third, a common long-term vision must be formulated.

It is clear that the longer the pandemic lasts, the more people will die and the longer workers will be more than ever restricted in their work and the more repressive the governments will be. The sooner it is possible to build a Europe-wide movement for a radical containment of the virus spread and to implement appropriate solidarity measures, the sooner they will be able to regain their social footing and go on the counter-offensive.

Trade unions, emancipatory movements, and socialist organizations should support this call without reservation and enrich it with a socio-ecological program. On this basis, they should campaign in Europe. I explain why this call is so important in the article For a solidary European strategy against the pandemic.

To conclude, a serious analogy: progressive social movements and socialist organizations now unanimously support the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 ° Celsius compared to pre-industrial times, although it has now become unlikely that this goal will be achieved can be, at least under capitalist conditions. This limit of 1.5 ° Celsius seems arbitrary, but it arises from the scientific knowledge that heating above this value will lead to uncontrollable tipping points with self-reinforcing chains of effects.

Similarly, in the case of the pandemic, it has been scientifically proven that uncontrollable mutations will increase with the rapid spread of the virus, which makes any further containment of the pandemic more difficult and increase and prolong the suffering. Mutations can increase the rate of transferability or lethality or reduce the effectiveness of vaccinations. The new virus strain B1.1.7 is currently causing contagions to explode in parts of England. In a short time that will happen elsewhere as well. It is high time for Die Link and socialist organizations to accept this knowledge and draw appropriate conclusions.

Strict restrictive measures coordinated across Europe are needed that are designed on a solidarity basis, i.e. that also encompass large parts of the economy. These measures must largely suspend the movement of people across Europe for a short period of time. Wage-earners and small businesses must be protected by a comprehensive support programme with continued wages and many other accompanying measures. Funding for these activities is to be implemented by a corona solidarity contribution on high assets, profits, and income, such as the anti Capital Followings have been demanding from the Spanish state for a long time. Just as the climate movement is increasingly managing to build up social pressure from below for effective protection of the climate, it is now – but immediately – to start a movement from below for effective protection of people.

Verena Kreilinger, Winfried Wolf, and Christian Zeller have just completed a detailed analysis of the pandemic and the strategies of the governments in the German-speaking countries. The call on unions, social movements, and left-wing organizations to act together immediately and to work for an emergency program “from below” to contain the pandemic.

Christian Zeller is an economist and geographer and is involved in the political movement Aufbruch for an eco-socialist alternative. Christian is the author and co-author of two recently published books:

Kreilinger, Verena; Wolf, Winfried, and Zeller, Christian (2020): Corona, Crisis, Capital. Plea for an alternative based on solidarity in times of the pandemic. Cologne: Papyrossa, 277 pp.

Zeller, Christian (2020): Revolution for the climate. Why we need an eco-socialist alternative. Munich: Oekom Verlag, 248 pp.

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