Zero Covid: A workers’ programme

10 December 2020

By Peter Main

The recent launch of the Zero Covid campaign brings a welcome breath of fresh air and sanity to the public debate on dealing with the pandemic.

For all their talk of “following the science” and “balancing health and wealth”, Boris Johnson and his cabinet have ignored clear lessons from the rest of the world, ensured the death of some 70,000 people and shrunk the economy by more than 20 per cent.

Nor can they avoid the blame by pointing to the novelty of the virus itself; they were warned of the impact of such a pandemic in 2016. The Cygnus Report of that year stressed, in particular, that the country had inadequate stocks of personal protective equipment and that care homes would see the highest death rates. What did the government do? Nothing. The report was buried and remains classified to this day.

While Johnson and his cabinet dithered throughout February and most of March, China, Taiwan and South Korea took immediate, and drastic, steps to stop the virus in its tracks. Learning from earlier epidemics, such as SARS, they set themselves the target of eliminating the virus by nationwide restrictions on all movement.

At the same time, the terrible cost of not following their example became clear in Northern Italy. Whether the government here did accept the so-called “herd immunity” strategy of simply allowing the virus to spread throughout the population, until everybody had either caught it and become immune or died, we do not know.

The strategy they did adopt, however, was almost as cold-blooded and cynical. It was to allow the pandemic to spread up to the point where the NHS was completely overwhelmed. Only then, would serious restrictions on movement be introduced. Once the spread of the disease had been reduced to “manageable” levels, the restrictions would be lifted, knowing full well that the virus would then spread again.

All the deaths, all the long-term disabilities were regarded as an acceptable cost for keeping as much of the economy functioning, that is, profit-making, as possible. The same is true of “excess deaths” (deaths indirectly caused by Covid) from domestic abuse, suicide and delayed or cancelled treatment of other diseases while the NHS was overwhelmed by the pandemic.

There was a method in this madness; the Tories and their allies saw in the pandemic an opportunity to accelerate the strategy laid down in their 2012 Health and Social Care Act for dismantling and privatising the NHS.

The “Lansley Act” abolished the Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities, replacing them with “Clinical Commissioning Groups” which provided access to the health system for private companies. It was a recipe for the disaster of the Covid pandemic.

Zero Covid
The Zero Covid strategy rejects the idea that there can be an acceptable level of the disease. This is the approach taken in the past to other such infectious diseases; no one suggests that there is an acceptable level of smallpox or poliomyelitis. Setting the eradication of the virus as a goal, however, does not imply that this is easy or quick, only that public health strategies should aim for it.

The Zero Covid Campaign has drawn on international experience and the advice of Independent Sage to identify four key measures to implement that strategy:

Had such a strategy been implemented in time, we would by now be essentially free of the virus and life would have returned to normal as it has in other countries that used this approach. Now, of course, it would likely require a much more extended lockdown.

However, while lockdowns reduce transmission, they have taken their toll on both jobs and public health. We cannot simply lock down until enough of the population is vaccinated, nor can we let the virus rip or allow the Tories to pursue a strategy of on/off lockdowns to keep deaths at an “acceptable” level. Instead, a lockdown should be used to reduce transmission and implement a Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support system that can stop the spread of the virus and eliminate the need for further national lockdowns.

Such an approach must be combined with financial and social support for those isolating. Alongside the organisation and empowerment of workers and students to monitor health and safety measures in their workplaces and educational institutions and, where necessary, close them to contain outbreaks.

Clearly, the Tories are not going to change course just by examples of a better strategy; their cronies are making too much from the disaster and their media barons can orchestrate a supposed public outrage at even the most minor restrictions, no matter the departure of the loathsome Dominic Cummings.

Labour movement
Supporting the Zero Covid campaign, however, is not just a matter of pointing to examples of best practice overseas. In workplaces all over the country, union organisers, stewards and Health and Safety reps are fighting for safe working practices and the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

The Zero Covid campaign provides a framework to coordinate such struggles, locally and nationally, and to generalise key demands such as full pay for those who have to isolate. The campaign already has the support of trade union activists, like nurses Karen Reissmann and Mark Boothroyd, as well as branch officers in the NEU, Unison, UCU and Unite.

Trade union and Labour Party branches should support the campaign and publicise its proposals and demands as widely as possible. At the same time, like the Tories, we should have a strategy. We should draw the political lessons of this global pandemic; all of the measures that need to be taken, even the half-hearted ones the Tories have taken, point to the need for socialist solutions.

Not only the coronavirus pandemic, but climate change and the economic crisis need the mobilisation of all of humanity’s resources, irrespective of national frontiers, private property or corporate profits. The prospect of an effective vaccine, after less than a year of the pandemic, is the result of international collaboration between scientists; successful protection in the here and now demands the planned production and allocation of resources.

In particular the elimination of the virus means using the accumulated wealth of the imperialist countries to build public health systems in the semi-colonial countries. The free distribution of effective vaccine/s to all parts of the Global South in roughly the same time period is vital for worldwide elimination of the virus. As with environmental issues, imperialism has to be resisted.
All of these issues are ultimately political; who is to control the world’s resources and in whose interests? That is why we need a political party, not only in this country but an international party that will fight for a socialist answer.

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