Politicising the coronavirus pandemic

As the weeks turn into months and the policy response develops, the political nature of the pandemic will come into focus.

This crisis is erupting at a moment when millions of people are already in the process of radicalisation through the climate movement.

The implications of the coronavirus outbreak are becoming clearer day by day. The pandemic will affect every aspect of our lives and put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

The UK government is still avoiding radical measures to suppress the transmission of Covid-19, although day by day they are changing their tune and implementing tighter restrictions.

Whether the early days of the government’s response and their “herd immunity” narrative indicate cruel cynicism or complacent miscalculation hardly matters anymore . I believe the Tory government policy amounts to social murder of the “economically inactive” and we need to do everything we can to protect each other.

Health

As the weeks turn into months and the policy response develops, the political nature of the pandemic will come into focus.

The pandemic is the starting pistol for a period of fierce social contestations: between employers and workers, landlords and tenants, the state and those parts of the populace who have always been treated as surplus to requirements.

Employers are already acting to protect their profits at the expense of safety, pay and conditions. Many businesses are denying sick pay, laying workers off without pay and failing to put in place basic social distancing measures for those still coming into work.

The Tory government is taking measures to protect business interests, and at the same time they are extending their coercive powers.

The new Coronavirus Bill hands police and immigration officials the power to detain people suspected of being infected and allows authorities to ban gatherings, slash care standards, remove safeguards against people being sectioned and even impose a total closure of the UK’s borders.

Against their inaction and repression, we need to organise for inclusive and rapid social distancing measures and demand a massive redirection of productive capacity towards health and social care.

Work

Workers must not face financial setbacks for taking measures to protect public health. Those who are unwell or who are self-isolating need to be paid, but so do people whose workplaces are closed, or who cannot come to work because they are in high-risk categories, or who face redundancy due to the pandemic and the economic crisis.

Despite the government’s announcement that wages will be subsidised under workplace closures, many businesses are still deciding either to lay off workers and leave them with nothing, or to keep their doors open and endanger staff and the wider public.

The trade union United Voices of the World has responded to the wage subsidy policy by demanding that employers be compelled to cease all redundancies and that wage subsidies be extended to gig-economy workers. Other workers are having to move fast to push for workplace closures.

For those who are still working, there can be no business as usual. The pandemic is putting immense pressure on frontline workers who cannot work from home: cleaners, couriers, postal workers, health workers and so many more.

They all need protective equipment, decent pay to recognise the strain they are being put under, and an end to practices like outsourcing, zero hours contracts and denial of sick pay.

Humanitarian

The NHS will take on an unprecedented political centrality here in Britain. After a decade of under-funding and privatisation, the health service is entering the coronavirus crisis already badly under-staffed and acutely short of key equipment, facilities and resources.

No amount of short-term increased funding can undo the cumulative damage within a few short months, but there are nonetheless many steps that could be taken right now to give health workers a fighting chance of responding effectively.

A petition promoted by Keep Our NHS Public puts forward six such demands, including adequate testing and protective equipment for NHS workers, the suspension of “hostile environment” restrictions in the health service, and full transparency on the government’s strategy.

The impending crisis in the health service will ultimately be resolved – in one direction or another.

A forceful push from health workers, patients, and others could use this moment to secure proper resourcing and the adoption of a humanitarian, safety-first principle within the health service – it may be possible to lock these concessions down once the crisis subsides.

Power

Otherwise, the government may use the likely near-collapse of the NHS in coming months as an opening for further free-market shock therapy.

A similar logic applies across a wide variety of areas: either the volatility of the moment, with ruling elites temporarily off-balance, will be seized by the left, or it will give way to an intense global bout of “disaster capitalism.”

How do you organise to win a demand in a pandemic? The immediate response in many quarters has been a turn towards online campaigning, with many unions and campaigns putting forward petitions in the last few days and gaining huge numbers of signatures.

The community union Acorn is calling for a rent holiday for all those impacted by the pandemic, since the temporary halt on evictions won’t stop debt from piling up. Workers in BFAWU made Wetherspoons U-turn and pay them fully during closures through an online pressure campaign. The IWGB are crowdfunding for a legal challenge on sick pay.

But at some point, we will have to turn online networks into more concrete kinds of power.

Pandemic

There will be strikes and other outbreaks of militancy among the roughly five million essential workers that the government envisage staying at work over the coming weeks.

The stakes are high and many workers are facing distressing circumstances aggravated by coercive management practices. Last week, cleaners at Lewisham Hospital walked out over outsourcing firm ISS’s failure to pay them properly and workers at a poultry manufacturer walked out over lack of safety measures.

Huge social solidarity can be mobilised for workers like these in the current climate – although it is also easy to imagine the authorities attempting to ban strike action in key sectors.

Another important variable is the remarkable network of Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups that have sprung up around the country. These represent an unprecedented explosion of community solidarity in a situation where state services have been ravaged by austerity.

Local councils and NGOs are already making plans to control and co-opt community organising efforts under the rubric of the government’s call for a “national effort” to tackle the pandemic.

Political terrain

However, if they can maintain their organisational independence, these networks could also be decisive in organising against aspects of the government’s response. Rent strikes are already being discussed in some quarters.

One organisation that seems unlikely to yield much by way of active intervention in the next few months is the Labour Party. Labour MPs have shown little sign of dissent against the government’s bill.

Their reluctance to “politicise” the crisis only strengthens the Conservative Party’s narrative that their policies are a reflection of the scientific consensus, beyond politics and beyond reproach.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the pandemic will unleash profound economic and geopolitical shifts. Above all, a dramatic economic collapse is now underway worldwide; the pandemic is the proximate cause, but growth has been flatlining for some time.

Huge stimulus packages from governments will not be enough to stem the bleeding; the temporary remedies applied after 2008 will not be viable this time.

This crisis is erupting at a moment when millions of people are already in the process of radicalisation through the climate movement. Countless people worldwide have been coming to the blunt realisation that there will be no solution to climate breakdown within the framework of capitalism.

The rapidly shifting political terrain and the crisis in economic production challenge us all to give concrete meaning to that realisation.

This Author

Taisie Tsikas and Max Stein are members of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century (rs21), a Marxist organisation based in the UK. You can find a model motion for trade unions raising key demands for the current crisis on their website, rs21.org.uk.

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