Strategy & Tactics

Why the government is lying about coronavirus

16 March 2020

“We are facing a global emergency, and politicians who appear not to believe in science are putting us all at risk. That this statement applies equally to coronavirus and climate change says something about the era in which we live.”

New Scientist leader: Parallel problems, 7.3.20

Our era is indeed facing ever more regular and more severe crises from global heating to financial meltdowns to pandemic diseases. Yet these global social problems are being dealt with along rival national lines and under competing capitalist property rights.

Our response must be from an internationalist, working class viewpoint. In other articles we cover in greater depth the scientific understanding of the problem (and therefore possible solutions), as well as the coming global recession triggered by the pandemic.

Here we will look at the communist response to the crisis. But first let us state the nature of the problem insofar as we know it and the inadequate responses (or non-responses) of Boris Johnson’s government.


The first known death from coronavirus-2019 came in the third week of January in Wuhan, Hubei province. Initial deaths linked it to a “wet market” where live and dead animals are kept in proximity and viruses can jump through the food chain into humans. The initial source of the virus is thought to be a kind of fruit bat, known for carrying coronaviruses.

All of this raises questions about animal husbandry, agriculture and the food industry. China is hardly alone in having appalling standards in all three. The giant agribusiness multinationals should be forced to open their accounts and facilities to workers’ (or more precisely scientists’ trusted by the working class) inspection. Workers should fight for the right to veto substandard practices with no victimisation or loss of pay.

What we know about the spread of the virus is hampered by the fact that there is such variance in the amount of testing done in each country, with the UK and the US among those testing the least. It is likely that countries showing a higher than average death rate from the disease, like Iran and Italy, are probably under-testing, while those with a lower rate, like South Korea, where we know testing is more widespread, are probably closer to the actual rate, about 1-2%.

But not only does under-testing leave many victims undetected, meaning they are likely to infect others and possibly miss out on early, vital intervention, it also prevents planning for containment of the virus: where to close schools and other public facilities, when and where to impose travel restrictions. Furthermore, the lack of testing means health workers with symptoms must self-isolate just in case they have the virus, exacerbating the existing staffing crisis in the NHS.

We demand full testing and where necessary, as in the intensive care units, regular testing. To meet demand, the companies supplying such equipment need to reveal their manufacturing process so it can be replicated on new or requisitioned sites under state ownership and workers’ control.

Once one contracts the illness, the outcome is quite varied. It is estimated (we don’t know the actual number of infections) that 80 per cent will only suffer mild symptoms, like congestion, a sore throat, dry cough, raised temperature. The other 20 per cent need hospital treatment, as the virus attacks the lungs – leading to difficulty breathing or pneumonia – and in more severe cases the heart and other vital organs, which can also fail. Five per cent will need intensive care treatment.

Medical professionals warn that those with high blood pressure, heart or respiratory diseases, diabetics, the elderly or anyone with underlying health problems are most vulnerable. We can add to that list, without fear of contradiction, the homeless and those in crowded accommodation, those on income support, the disabled, those on insecure contracts or bogus self-employed, who cannot take time off, etc. In short, all those victims of austerity are being victimised again.

The NHS was founded on the principle of equality of provision to everyone, regardless of social class, status or ability to pay. Not only should everyone be tested, but they should be able to self-isolate without any loss of expected income or fear of being evicted or going hungry. We must demand full sick pay from day one for all who work, no sackings of those who fall ill, free food for the vulnerable and rent amnesties for the period of lockdown or isolation.

How many is ‘not too many’?

Johnson told a press conference on 12 March that, “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. This blasé comment could – and should – come back to haunt him. At the same conference, the Prime Minister gave barely relevant and totally inadequate advice, such as avoiding cruise ships and foreign school trips.

Unlike almost every other European and East Asian country, many of whom have fewer cases and fewer deaths, Britain would not ban large gatherings, nor close schools and universities, nor order businesses to introduce working from home – or to close. Johnson claimed that we were “some weeks away” from the most dangerous period. His advisor said we were four weeks behind Italy (which turned out to be a lie).

On 16 March, Johnson “advised” and “requested” that those with symptoms and their families self-isolate for seven days (until forced to change it to 14: another lie). In the next few days he is expected to ask those over 70 or with underlying conditions to self-isolate for twelve weeks. No action is being ordered to close schools or postpone large sporting events.

Yet the Tory government says it is only following the science. Coincidentally the same science that has led other governments (and even the Premier League!) to go for far more serious measures, banning large gatherings, closing down schools, etc. So who is right?

Comparing covid-19 with previous pandemics, like the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 or swine flu in 2009, is difficult because reliable data may be missing. But the largely uncontained pandemic after World War One affected 60 per cent of the world’s population, killing 2 per cent of them, 50 million. Swine flu, which was better contained, affected at least 25 million people, killing up to half a million (earlier estimates have been revised upwards considerably).

Covid-19 is not flu. A person can be typically infected without showing symptoms for a week, during which time they are infectious. There are no outstanding symptoms, which differentiate it from flu or cold-like infections, for the majority. We don’t know if you can even get long-term immunity.

Statistician and blogger Tomas Pueyo has shown by comparing national timelines and marking the likely effect of lockdown measures described above that the disease will naturally double the number of cases every two days. But lockdowns have a delayed effect at least in slowing down the rate of infection and therefore the rate of deaths every day.

The number of deaths from covid-19 leapt from 36 to 55 on 16 March. The fact that the number of known cases rose by only 171 in that same period demonstrates how little testing is being done. Even the government admits the true number of cases is over 10,000. But the government line is to test only those already hospitalised by the disease, catching approximately only 20 per cent of the total.

Lockdowns and lesser measures which reduce social contact have been shown to lower the rate of contagion. It is widely recognised that it is now almost impossible to simply contain the virus and stop it spreading widely across the globe. But by spreading the illness and need for specialist care more thinly, strained healthcare systems like the NHS – still suffering from years of austerity and cuts – can cope better and save lives.

A Channel 4 survey of a thousand NHS professionals found 99 per cent agreeing that the system will break down under the foreseen pressure. Doctors have complained that they will be put in the position of gods, deciding which patient lives and which dies. The internal market and private insurance will certainly play a role.

Meanwhile NHS staff, exhausted, under extreme pressure and danger, have been denied all future leave. Many have or will fall ill themselves, yet if they self-isolate, the workload increases for others. In short the system breaks down, patients do not receive the care they need and the rate of deaths per cases rises inexorably further.

We need an immediate and massive investment in the NHS both to defend ourselves in this crisis and to prepare for the next. The health and safety of NHS staff must not be counterposed to “efficiency”. Full and frequent testing for staff, sufficient supply of PPE protection, massive recruitment of staff, training with a decent bursary and raising pay to compensate for the wear and tear of professional service are urgently needed.

An adequate response to the pandemic requires integrated and coordinated health services. Years of privatisation, profiteering and under-funding has broken up the NHS and seeded the ground for private healthcare. Not only the hospitals but the entire pharmaceutical, medical technology and research industries must be nationalised. This should be done without compensation to those profiting from ill-health and run under workers’ control.

Capitalist priorities

Johnson’s talk of “flattening the sombrero”, i.e. diverting the exponential curve of the pandemic, is in fact just talk. Again Tomas Pueyo shows that delays and half-measures both reduce their effectiveness and make the peak of the contagion, when there are an equal number of deaths or recoveries as there are new cases, much higher than is necessary.

Leaving aside his habitual disregard for the truth, claiming we are four weeks behind Italy’s curve when we are only 10 days away, Johnson has two excuses for his sloth-like response. First he says the British public – the “people” he claims to represent – will not put up with shutdown measures for more than a few weeks.

The key reason people would ignore advice to self-isolate is to go to work. There are many reports of employers ordering workers to ignore medical advice, under threat of dismissal, written warnings or withholding of wages.

The government has done nothing to address this glaring problem. Every step of the way, advice is aimed at individuals – asking us to work from home where possible, self-isolate and avoid unnecessary travel. We are blamed for spreading the virus, when only measures enforced against our employers has a chance of stopping it.

It is at times of crisis when the state reveals who it truly governs for, and the British government has surely demonstrated how slavishly it protects the ability of companies to profit. It is desperately hoping that, at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of lives, keeping the British economy churning while the rest of Europe locks down will allow our capitalist class to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Our government and bosses represent an obstacle to the fight against the pandemic and to protect the health of the population.

‘Herd Immunity’

Johnson’s second reason for delay is the claim from Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor, that we can now only aim for “herd immunity”, when enough of the population has already contracted the disease and developed natural immunity for contagion to slow down and eventually stop.

Herd immunity is a term usually reserved for explaining the effects of vaccines for diseases like measles and polio. The majority are vaccinated, stopping the circulation of the disease so that those who cannot be vaccinated are protected.

Vallance has stated that for herd immunity to work in our current conditions, with no vaccine available, at least 60% of the population would have to be infected. With a 20% hospitalisation rate and at least a 1% fatality rate, 40 million people contracting Covid-19 would require the hospitalisation of 8.4 million people and 400,000 deaths.

Self-isolation by those most at risk may go some way to mitigating the impact of this approach but the government is leaving the vulnerable to fend for themselves – advising them to ask family and friends to see to their everyday needs rather than the state taking responsibility for their welfare. In Italy and Spain, where bolder measures have been deployed to stop the spread of Covid-19, the death toll continues to rise. The idea that this government’s laissez-faire approach will be more effective would be laughable if so much weren’t at stake.

Other scientists, including Anthony Costello, professor of international child health and director of the University College London Institute for Global Health, have also pointed out that we don’t yet know whether Covid-19 regularly mutates like colds and flu. If it does then herd immunity would be ineffective in the long term as well as deadly in the short term.

When considered alongside the economic impact of closing businesses and restricting travel, the “herd immunity” approach looks more like strategy for minimising economic impact than for protecting public health. The able-bodied, working-age population still go to work, their children still go to school and those considered “unproductive” members of society are left vulnerable to infection.

Instead, by slowing down the spread of Covid-19 as soon as possible, one can buy time for cures and drugs to slow down or mitigate the disease’s symptoms and, of course, a vaccine to be developed. In this way the number of deaths and the number of cases can be lowered while still eventually wiping out the disease.

Like the chancer he is, Johnson is betting that a shorter and later shutdown of British business will help “our” economy to recover sooner and maybe even gain market share (of a much smaller pie). It is a gamble with our lives. He must be stopped.

Socialist solution

Remembering the quote at the beginning of this article, it is important to bear in mind that this is a global problem. To date most of the known cases of infection are in the northern, imperialist countries, with a few advanced semi-colonies like South Korea and Iran also suffering death and disease. Indeed the case of Iran gives a glimpse of how this pandemic may pan out in the global south where modern healthcare facilities do not exist. Africa is yet to experience its nightmare.

We live in a highly integrated world, where people, goods and capital move from continent to continent. This isn’t going to change. Social distancing is not a long-term solution. In addition, there is mounting evidence that climate change is likely to make such pandemics longer and more regular if weather patterns facilitate the spread.

That is why it is urgent to act now. As well as the immediate measures outlined above, we need to hammer out an action programme of demands that not only meet the needs of today but also increase the working class’ ability to control future pandemics. Here are some of the measures the world’s labour and socialist movements should fight for.

The healthcare systems, pharmaceutical giants and medical equipment companies must be nationalised without compensation and placed under the control of the working class and its trusted scientific and medical advisors. Their resources should be merged so we can unite all the forces capable of providing solutions to the crisis.

Fast-track the building of new hospitals and rapidly increase the number of beds, including intensive care beds, back to the level before the 2009 crash and beyond. For testing kits to be freely available to all so self-isolation can be observed. All workplaces, public transport and facilities to be cleaned and provided with hand gels and other facilities to contain infection. Any worker isolated or hospitalised should receive full pay or income from the state. A levy must be enforced on the rich to pay for the pandemic response. We will not pay for the crisis – again.

The airlines and rail companies have asked for government bailouts – they want public funds to be diverted from healthcare to shore up their profits and the answer should be a resounding “no”. Any company that goes bust, lays off or fails to pay workers should be nationalised under workers’ control.

Where possible and necessary, production should be shifted to products needed to alleviate the crisis for the ill or those locked down. No loss of income and no enforced poverty as a result of either covid-19 or the financial downturn.

While socialists support and call for measures that limit social contact and place restrictions on people’s movement and contact with each other, so long as these measures are necessary for public safety, we in no way sign away our rights to determine how they are used and for how long they should last. The workers’ movement should determine which gatherings should go ahead – it’s one thing to ban sporting events but if it becomes necessary to demonstrate or use industrial action to force the government to act in our interests we should not doubt that it would use the virus as an excuse to suppress resistance.

For action committees to plan the necessary measures and the consequences of those measures. Strike action to demand public safety measures and enforce them if the government or the bosses put short-term profit before our health will be needed. Union and Labour leaders need to be forced to call such actions, especially since large-scale demonstrations may well be undesirable in the near future. Indeed, at certain points in the developing crisis, it may be possible and necessary to call for generalised political strike action to avert disaster.

Ultimately if food or other resources become scarce, it will be necessary for workers committees of unions, labour branches, workplaces, neighbourhood assemblies, working with workers of the big retailers including Amazon and port workers to set prices, stop the rich from hoarding and even organise the distribution of goods in conjunction with workers of other countries.

We must demand the cessation of all work and activities that are not necessary to maintain the basic needs of the population. Excluded from this would be work in health care, transport, firefighting, food production, medical research, communications, etc. Which activities are systemically relevant to the people, which will continue and which will not – these questions must be decided by the working population, not by the owners of capital and their governments.

Britain and the other rich nations should produce modern equipment and technology and make them freely available, as well as investing in hospitals and healthcare centres, in poorer countries, struggling to cope with the outbreak. They are happy to use the global south’s natural resources, cheap labour and lower health, safety and environmental standards to accumulate capital for themselves. Now they should pay back part of their bounty in saving lives, rather than destroying them.

In the effort to develop a vaccine, all research results from both state and private institutions must be shared and coordinated internationally.

We must resist the sealing of state borders to refugees and migrants, who are the a particularly oppressed and exploited strata of the working class. Rather than closing boarders and abolishing the right to asylum, refugees and other migrants should be tested on entry and receive medical and social care where needed.

The worst thing we can do is leave everything in the hands of the Tories. This is not a natural disaster, where we all have to pull together. It is caused and exacerbated by a system that cuts corners in every sphere from food production and animal husbandry to healthcare and scientific research. Their bottom line is not how many people die but how can British capitalism survive and prosper, at least relatively to other nations and the working class.

If we can link the fight for immediate demands in the workplace and community to wider demands which wrench control of the health and social care system away from the capitalist class and place the management of the crisis under working-class control, then it is possible to emerge out the other side to a saner, safer world.

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