Friday, December 18, 2020

Coming to terms with COVID-19

 by Ben Soton

Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain's Health and Wealth and What to Do about It by John Ashton, Gibson Square Publishers 2020. Paperback: 256pp; £12.99. Hardback: 256pp; £40. Kindle: 256pp. file size: 461k; £5.99.

IN THE months and years ahead there will be numerous articles, books and even television dramas about COVID-19. With this in mind, John Aston’s book will be one amongst many critiques of how the pandemic was handled and for the most part mishandled.
    Prof Ashton’s book is without doubt a mine of useful information. The author, who is one of the world’s leading experts on public health, gives accounts of previous plagues starting with the Black Death, which hit Europe in the 14th Century. Cholera came in the 19th century; Spanish Flu after the First World War, and more recently the SARS and Swine Flu pandemics of the early 21st Century.
    The book lists the Tory Government’s litany of mistakes and failure to act. These include Boris Johnson’s failure to attend COBRA meetings in the early stages of the pandemic. At the same time David Halpern, the head of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, was stating that self-isolation would encourage people to take unnecessary time off work.
    A chapter is devoted to the infamous concept of ‘herd immunity’ as misappropriated and advocated by Dominic Cummings and upheld by the Trump administration and the Brazilian regime, to let the plague run uncontrollably through the population to devastating effect even though, as Prof Ashton explains, the best way to achieve herd immunity is through vaccination. But the Johnson Government’s greatest blunder was ordering the first lockdown too late and then easing it before even its own criteria had been met.
    In terms of which countries to follow in view of our Government’s disastrous response, there have been numerous alternative models. The real left has looked to Democratic Korea (DPRK), which has kept the plague completely out of the country, and Cuba, People’s China and Vietnam, who all acted promptly and have seen a low death toll.
    Cuba and China even sent medical aid to European Union member states such as Italy. The EU’s response was to fine pandemic-ridden Italy for infringements of EU Competition Law. Meanwhile anti-lockdown campaigners talked-up the ‘Swedish model’ – a Nordic version of ‘herd immunity’ that eventually led to the worst death toll in Scandinavia.
    For his part John Ashton prefers the Bahrain model and the effective way in which this oil-rich island kingdom beat back COVID-19. Not sure why he calls this feudal Arab Gulf state a “constitutional monarchy” but perhaps it’s because he’s the Advisor to Bahrain’s COVID Task Force...
    Prof Ashton makes several excellent observations but views the Governments failure largely in administrative terms.
    He cites the downgrading of the position of Public Health Officer in recent years; a position largely a product of Victorian municipalism. In the same vein he also speaks highly of the ground-breaking work of Dr John Snow in dealing with the terrible cholera outbreak in 19th Century London.
    The author, ably assisted by his wife, health specialist Maggi Morris, endorses the demands of the independent SAGE committee. These include strengthening the social safety net for vulnerable groups, the establishment of a sustainable health and social care infrastructure system rooted in the community, and an integrated Health and Social Care System. Sadly, he makes little obvious reference to the ongoing privatisation of the NHS that has been taking place under successive neo-liberal governments.
    This book is an easy read and well worth reading as a useful source of information on the Government’s epic mishandling of the pandemic. It’s available from all high street bookshops and online booksellers.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Light at the end of the tunnel?

The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine have arrived from the Belgian laboratories to kick-start a mass Covid vaccination programme that has raising hopes of a return to some sort of normality by the spring of next year. The Government has secured 40 million doses of the vaccine, enough to treat 20 million people in the coming months. The PfizerBioNTech jab is likely to be speedily followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine that may be approved for NHS use by Christmas.
Health Minister Matt Hancock tells us that a successful rollout would mean lockdown restrictions could end before March. He says he “can't wait” to scrap the three-tier system of coronavirus restrictions and “get back to living by mutual respect and personal responsibility, not laws set in parliament”.
    Well, we’ll wait and see. We’ve heard it all before from the Johnson government that gave us the shambolic “world-beating” track and trace system, the non-existent “oven-ready” Brexit deal with the European Union and the flawed “moon-shot” mass testing scheme that was supposed to reduce the need for social distancing.
    Johnson’s track and trace system failed because it was simply not fit for purpose. Outsourcing it to private contractors caused huge problems while its’ centralised design too often by-passed local public health teams. We cannot afford to repeat this folly with the new vaccines.
    The TUC is calling on the Government to take urgent steps to ensure the effective take up and delivery of the coronavirus vaccine. First of all local public health teams must be empowered to take the lead in co-ordination the vaccination programme. The supply chain must be improved through direct state intervention. The jabs must only be administered by trained health-care staff. National campaigns must be launched to encourage the public take up of the jab and build public confidence and trust in the anti-Covid operation.
    The TUC argues that a high level of engagement and compliance will be essential for the vaccination programme to be successful and that trust and confidence in the vaccination system is most likely to be maximised by a system designed and led by public health professionals.
    Meanwhile Richard Burgon, the secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, says: “After an incredibly bleak year, the coronavirus vaccines offer a ray of hope that 2021 can bring a return of something resembling normality. But it will be many months before the vaccines have been distributed widely. Until then, Labour needs to step up its opposition to force the government to adopt a new strategy. We can’t go on with months more of the government’s reckless approach. That has already led to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and one of the deepest downturns of any major economy”.
    Inoculating virtually the entire population will, in any case, take us well into next year. At the moment the only way we can drive down the rate of infection is through the lockdowns and other public health measures that we’ve lived through for the best part of this year. If we want to avoid a dreaded winter “third wave” the emergency must continue and the Government must maintain and expand the furlough and business support schemes to stave of mass unemployment.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tiers for Fears

The second national lockdown has ended with the news of a dramatic fall in the Covid-19 infection rate throughout the country and the start of a vaccination programme that will, hopefully, turn the tide in the battle against the coronavirus plague.
     But hundreds of people are still dying every day and lockdowns supported by the Government’s third-rate track and trace service will remain the only way to combat the plague until the vaccine gets out to the vast majority of the population
     The Health Minister, Matt Hancock, somewhat optimistically says Britain will be through Covid-19 "by spring" after the first people are given vaccines from Monday while Boris Johnson, with uncharacteristic caution warns us not to get our hopes up for getting the new coronavirus vaccine soon.
     The roll-out will start with the vulnerable care home staff and residents and then cover the rest of the population in stages starting with the over 80s. There’s talk within the corridors of power of a return to normality by next spring. That clearly depends on the efficacy of the vaccine.
     Whatever happens the “normality” of the post-coronavirus environment will largely depend on the strength of the labour movement. The unions have shown their willingness to work with the Government to protect health and jobs during the emergency. Whether this will continue clearly depends on the Johnson government’s willingness to continue the consultation process with organised labour.

tackling unemployment

Young workers have been hit hard by the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis. They have experienced the highest rates of redundancy, largest falls in employment, highest rates of furlough with reduced pay, largest falls in weekly pay, and the largest falls in hours worked. The lockdowns have also led to significant job losses in sectors like hospitality and leisure which employ many young workers.
     The Government’s Kickstart employment scheme has got off to a shaky start. Though supported, at least in principle, by the TUC, the scheme is just a rehash of old cheap labour work schemes like Labour’s Youth Opportunities Programme that began in the Wilson-Callaghan era of the 1970s and its successors like the Tory Youth Training Scheme in 1983 and the Blair’s New Deal “workfare” programme that began in 1998.
     The problem hasn’t been totally ignored by Labour. Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary recently said that: ““…latest figures show the Government’s Kickstart scheme is failing to deliver for young people, creating opportunities for just 3 per cent of the 600,000 young people unemployed. The Government must be much more ambitious if we are to prevent a generation scarred by long term unemployment. It is worrying that months into this jobs crisis we still have no plan from this Government to tackle rising unemployment and get Britain back to work”.
     But these days Labour’s alternative amounts to little more than claiming that they can run the economy on its existing lines more efficiently than the Conservatives. This was the mantra of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during a boom that Brown thought would last forever. It’s a mantra that has been repeated by every successive leader of the Labour Party, apart from Jeremy Corbyn, despite the fact that we have not even recovered from the slump of 2007.
    But we are not, as the Tories and Blairites claim, all in it together nor do we have a stake in ensuring that capitalism survives. There’s no trickle‑down effect. All that workers get from the capitalist table is the crumbs, so while capitalism survives there will always be a fight to increase and defend the share that workers get from capitalism. But in the long term the only way to ensure that this share is maintained and improved, and not to have to defend it time and time again, is by fighting for working class state power, the dictatorship of the proletariat.
    It’s either them or us; the workers or the bosses. The alternative to working class state power is increasing exploitation, racial and communal strife, rapid growth in crime, drug trafficking, violence and conflict from local to international levels. The capitalists must not be allowed to destroy society. It is they who must be supplanted.

Axes to grind

by Ben Soton

Small Axe (2020). TV mini-series of five 60-minute episodes on BBC1, Sundays at 9pm; currently also available on BBC iPlayer. Series Director: Steve McQueen.

Small Axe, BBC1’s latest Sunday night drama, is a series of feature-length stories covering the struggles of the West Indian community in Britain. Obviously, a response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, I can already hear those of a racist persuasion crying about the BBC getting on the bandwagon. This should be seen in a positive light however, namely would these programmes have been made had it not been for this year’s wave of protest?
The work of director Steve McQueen, the drama covers issues from police harassment to the West Indian music scene. The series successfully depicts the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, which is gradually fading from memory. The drama does not pull any punches about the West Indian community, in particular the issue of domestic violence towards women and the use of soft drugs.
    Episode I, Mangrove, covers the issue of police harassment of the black community. This episode centred around the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, which was subject to continuous police harassment by the Metropolitan Police. The restaurant was regularly raided on spurious grounds and issued with fines for minor infractions. Fed up with continuous harassment, members of Notting Hill’s black community marched on Notting Hill police station to protest. Those later arrested with riot and affray later became known as the Mangrove Nine.
     Episode II, Lovers Rock, depicts the story of a young black woman caught between white racists and over amorous men from her own community. This episode largely focusses on the West Indian music scene. With an almost entirely black cast, it depicts the tensions within as well as the customs of that community.
    Episode III, Red, White and Blue, on the other hand, covers the experience of a young black man who joins the Metropolitan Police.
     This series of films, along with the BLM protests, comes at a time when many of the gains made by the anti-racist campaigners are, albeit indirectly, coming under attack. This includes the Windrush scandal as well as the hostile environment created toward migrants with its inevitable effect on more established ethnic communities. It was not so long ago however, when the UK was the only state in Europe where an Interior Minister, in the name of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, was forced to resign for racist behaviour. Meanwhile, when far-right activists descended on London to defend (boarded up) statues one of their number was caught urinating on a memorial to a dead police officer. It’s not all doom and gloom but time to remain vigilant.