Boris Johnson’s strategy for dealing with the coronavirus will kill a large number of people who don’t need to die. I believe it will probably be at least 100,000, maybe many more. Our best chance of stopping that is a mass movement.
Effective treatment and reducing the number of people who are sick at the same time will reduce fatalities. So, above all, we need tens of thousands more ventilators and intensive care beds – and we need to close the schools and reduce the spread of the virus now.
Here are three ways we can make that happen.
Let me start with hospitals and intensive care. Health workers can hold vigils outside hospitals and clinics. If six or ten staff hold home-made placards when they are off shift for an hour or two at two hospitals in the country one day, there will be vigils outside ten hospitals the next day. Two days later there will be vigils outside a hundred hospitals. Those pickets will be the main item on the news.
Then there are the schools. Some students are already walking out, and some parents are taking their kids out. But we need to act together to close the schools for everyone.
Secondary school students can stand just outside the school, holding home made placards, asking the head and the government to close the schools. That will also have a startling effect. If ten students do that at your school tomorrow, a hundred will do it the next day. If four schools do it tomorrow, a hundred will do it the next day, and then a thousand. Heads and the government will close the schools.
Then there’s building a mass movement for everyone. That movement will encourage the health workers and the students. We are going to need that movement for a hundred more reasons to protect people across the board and over the long haul.
We know what we are in for because of what happened in northern Italy, where the epidemic overwhelmed hospitals’ ability to cope.
The Italian hospitals did not have enough beds, enough staff, or enough medicine. But the big problem was ventilators. Covid-19 is a disease of the lungs. If you get too sick to breathe, it kills you.
At that point, a bed in an intensive care unit with a ventilator can probably save your life. A ventilator is the machine that breathes for you when your lungs can’t. Those ventilators are available in intensive care units.
But most intensive care beds in Italy were already in use for people who were seriously ill for all the normal reasons.
Italy was lucky, though. They has twice as many intensive care units per person as the UK. So it’s going to be worse here. Because when an epidemic hits, hospitals don’t have a lot of room to take on extra patients. They have to start rationing the intensive care beds and ventilators.
It is the hospital administrators and senior doctors in Northern Italy who have to decide which very sick people with the corona virus would go into intensive care, and who would be left outside. There was no way round this decision.
The administrators decided, as a general rule, that very sick people over 60 would not be treated in intensive care. They also decided that very sick people with chronic diseases of the immune system or the lungs would not be allowed into intensive care.
Should it come to this in the UK, as a health worker, you will see those patients. Maybe you will have to tell them they will not be treated. Or you’ll just bring them glasses of water, say a kind word, and cry with exhaustion.
I am 71. My partner is 75. One of our adult children has chronic lung problems. But I understand why those administrators and doctors made that decision. The younger and stronger people are more likely to survive. And they get better quicker, so one intensive care bed and one ventilator can save more lives.
I understand that decision. But it should never come to that. Instead, we need is more intensive care beds and more ventilators. Now.
We have 5,000 ventilators in the UK. We need tens of thousands more.
A makeshift ventilator is not that complicated to make. Factories and workshops that make machines or motors or valves or plastic tubes can start jury-rigging everything they can, round the clock.
Boris Johnson knows we need those ventilators. Over the weekend he had a phone conversation with industrial executives, urging them to do more. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, says they will buy every ventilator that the industry makes.
They are not making them yet. The UK government can order every appropriate company to do that, and nothing else, starting tomorrow. Or tonight. Eyeballs out.
Johnson can do that. If he delays, the Scottish Government or the Welsh can do it. It’s an emergency.
Ventilators and intensive care beds are one solution. The other thing we can do is reduce the number who are sick at any one time. People will still get sick eventually, there are just fewer people in hospital at any one time.
The big thing here is social distancing. The less contact, the longer it takes the disease to spread. All over Europe, governments are closing pubs, shops, sports, gigs, universities and schools.
Everywhere in Europe but the UK. Everywhere. Our government ministers are telling the newspapers that if we close the schools we will face a 3 percent fall in GDP. Three pennies out of every pound.
Boris Johnson and his government don’t want to hurt the economy. This seems to accept that perhaps 400,000 will die, but quickly. After that the survivors will be immune and we will be back to economic normal.
Really. It is almost impossible to believe they are thinking that. But they are. Other conservative and capitalist governments in Europe are not acting like that. It seems as if Boris Johnson is unusually evil.
But because most people are not evil, Johnson can be shamed into behaving better.
Now let’s says more about vigils by health workers. I was a health worker for almost twenty years, and a union shop steward for much of that time. I know you can’t go on strike now.
But a vigil outside the hospital of just six or ten or twenty of you, in your working clothes, off shift or in your breaks, standing in a row with home-made cardboard placards – that would have enormous moral force.
If you can, get the backing of your local union, your local BMA, your professional association, or the student union for student nurses. That will give your more authority, and spread the word. But remember, you are not striking. This is legal. It is your right.
You only have to stand there for half an hour or an hour. Then you can go back into work. In a hospital with a thousand workers, six or ten other people can come out to take your place.
As for those placards – some should ask for more intensive care beds, or more ventilators; some should say close the school; some should say whatever is in your heart.
The moral impact will be enormous. We love our NHS, and we love our NHS workers. And we know you’re in the front line now. Take videos on your phone and share them. The videos will go viral. Remember, if there is a vigil outside two hospitals tomorrow, there will be a vigils outside a hundred hospitals three days later.
Today, start asking each other, what’s the smallest brave thing we could do today?
Protect the people
Turn to the new Protect the People website that some of us started on Saturday night. We are trying to build a mass movement to make the government do everything they can. We have a statement and we want you to sign it and leave your name. Then you show your name there to the other cleaners or nurses or doctors and say, can you put your name there too?
Here’s something a little braver. Take a picture of five of you holding a home-made cardboard sign that says Protect the People. Or “we need more intensive care beds to save lives.” Send it to family, to friends, to other staff in the hospital.
Or take a picture with a placard and put it up on social media. Caption it, “Five Nurses in a Sheffield Hospital”, or “Six cleaners in a Central London hospital”, or “Eight assorted staff in a clinic”. And ask people to share the pic.
What will make all the difference is what the rest of us do. One or two older people, like me, isolated at home, we can sign that statement, share it, and take a picture with our homemade sign, and share it with all the people who know us and all the people who love us.
Put those photos up in our Protect the People Facebook group, or on the website and group of another initiative. Branding is not the point: we are all in this together.
As for school students, here’s what you can do now. If your school is still open tomorrow, you’re all supposed to go.
A crowd of a thousand students packed together, like in some of the climate walkouts, is out of the question. But you can stand outside the school in a line with home made placards, or hold up pieces of paper. Leave two meters between each person in the line, to show how serious you are.
You can do it at the end of school. Or in the dinner break. If there are eight of you at the school gate when school starts tomorrow, there will be fifty or a hundred the next day.
That line, two meters apart, will get longer and longer. Take photos. Make videos. Speak your mind on those videos. Share, share, share.
In the videos, on the placards, say close the schools. Ask for more intensive care beds. More ventilators. Make placards that say “Protect our Grandparents”.
If four schools in the country do it tomorrow, twenty will do it the next day, and two days later a thousand schools will be doing it. The heads will close the schools. The teachers want you to do this. This will force the government will act.
School students are not scared in the ways that health workers are. But there is another fear – isolation. In every country in the world, the worst punishment is solitary confinement. People need people.
Maybe self-isolation will be all right for some students. They can sit on their phones and computers all day long feeling popular. But cyber-space can be a lonely place. There is a lot of exclusion, and a lot of unkindness. Many people will be left behind.
That human need for humans is why a lot of students won’t want the school to close. If you’re a student, talk to them about what they and you can do once you’re home.
One obvious thing is social media groups and chats. But more important, you can be part of the growing mass movement of everyone, not just young people, taking care of each other.
Volunteer groups are springing up all over the country. You’re young, you’re strong, you can get about. You’ll have to be careful about spreading the virus, like everyone else. But there are millions of sick, elderly and homeless people who will need a knock on the door, a phone call, a hot drink in the street, a food parcel delivery, some sign another human being cares.
I’m not just saying be kind to the old. I wrote an article last week about all the ways we can do two things at once.
We can help each other through the epidemic, and simultaneously organize to make government offices and employers and welfare offices and landlords give us what we will need to survive.
Sign up with the Protect the People website. It’s people saying to each other we have to act.
Take care. Be kind. Act.
Jonathan Neale is a writer, climate activist and trade unionist. He is the author of A People’s History of the Vietnam War and Stop Global Warming, and the editor of One Million Climate Jobs. Follow him on Twitter @bonny_pirate.
Image: Hospital workers in Argentina. The signs say Help Us - Stay Home.