Coronavirus Isn’t Going Anywhere

The left needs to accept our new reality.

by James Meadway

1 December 2021

People wear face masks on the London underground as the spread of Covid-19 continues, November 2021. Hannah McKay/Reuters

As governments across the world respond to the discovery of the new, potentially vaccine-evading Omicron variant of the SARS-Cov-2 virus, two facts are being drummed home. First, that Covid-19 is now a near-permanent feature of our lives. Second, that the expansion in government powers and activities over the last 18 months isn’t being rolled back. 

These two facts are reshaping how politics operates. It is obviously no longer possible to treat Covid-19 as solely a public health crisis that will pass relatively quickly; it is a feature of how our economy and society is structured. For two years, politics on the left has concentrated – understandably – on the pressing public health demands of the initial outbreak, focusing on poor government preparedness, lack of protection for health and care workers and the necessity of adequate sick pay and income support for those asked to self-isolate. Now, though, it is vital we start thinking about Covid-19 as a long term feature of life, and shift our goals and our strategy to address this reality.

The left must be ready to challenge the government. 

While it is crucial that we continue tackling the ongoing public health situation resulting from the virus, if the defining concerns of the left are social justice and freedom, this has to be a starting point, rather than the end. 

Covid-19 respects neither justice, nor freedom: it has preferred to kill the poor, the disabled, and people of colour, and it has imposed itself on all of our abilities to live our lives in the way we want. We cannot wish the virus away. Given the technologies we currently have to fight it, including, critically, vaccines – and given capitalism’s gross failure to distribute those vaccines equitably – we are not going to escape its grip any time soon.

Nonetheless, as Covid-19 swept the globe in early 2020, there was a widespread belief that the pandemic would be unpleasant and frightening, but that it would pass quickly, and could therefore be treated as a wartime-style emergency. This belief is no longer supportable. Too often since, the political left has found itself nodding along with the radical extension of state powers, backing industrial-scale surveillance through vaccine passports, selectively abandoning its opposition to racist border controls, and calling for ‘zero Covid’ and the unhindered expansion of state control

If Covid-19 had been over in “12 weeks”, or “in time for Christmas” as Boris Johnson promised, some or all of these measures might, just about, have been tolerable. But that isn’t what has happened, and nor is it going to happen – the UK government’s central forecast, for example, is for the disease to become endemic here by 2024, after which point it would still require continual monitoring and vaccination programmes.

There is an obvious contradiction in backing increased government powers for the pandemic. How is it that the government, which oversaw Windrush, the ‘hostile environment’ and the drowning of migrants in the Channel, is also supposed to be trusted to impose restrictions on civil liberties for the public good? 

This isn’t simply a polemical point. The restrictive measures introduced since the pandemic, most notably the lockdowns, have helped reinforce existing discriminations. Last year, Black and ethnic minority people were 50% more likely to be given a fine after breaching lockdown than their white counterparts. And whilst a small section of the middle-class population didn’t fare too badly during lockdown, it was an overwhelmingly poorly paid and insecure workforce that kept the Amazon deliveries arriving at their door. 

I want to be quite blunt about this: Covid-19, broadly speaking, hasn’t been too bad if you are white, able-bodied, middle class and can work from home. But I don’t for a second think that the political left should view this slender and privileged demographic as its primary constituency.

And if the political left can’t, or won’t, give voice to some of the frustrations and injustices the pandemic and its government response have created, others will. The anti-lockdown and, worse, anti-vaccine protests here and across Europe should be taken as a warning. It is the political left in this country, from the Levellers to the suffragettes to the anti-poll tax protesters, that has a long and proud tradition of defending rights and fighting for justice. Allowing the opportunist ghouls of a homegrown Querdenken and far right to try and claim this struggle is a travesty of our history – and a political disaster in waiting.

The left, therefore, needs to get significantly sharper about the types of government action it will support in the name of public health, and the types it will not. It was good, for instance, to see Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Dawn Butler and others on the Labour left voting against the (wholly unnecessary) extension of the Coronavirus Act in March. The lack of a vote for its six-month extension in October, and the extremely limited parliamentary time made available to scrutinise the government’s arguments, were ominous developments. 

The Labour party in parliament should not be nodding through these powers on the promises of Tory health secretaries that they will hold onto them only “as long as is necessary”. Whatever happens with Covid-19, emergency legislation has a nasty habit of hanging around long after the emergency ends – pub closures at 11pm were introduced in 1915 under the Defence of the Realm Act, during WWI, but stayed in place until 2005. A clear, rights-based alternative to the existing Coronavirus Act, the Protect Everyone Bill, has been drafted by Liberty and other NGOs.

The left must develop a genuinely public science.

Beyond this, the left must become unabashed and enthusiastic advocates of science – not ‘The Science’, a supreme authority to which obedience is demanded, as the Tory government called for early last year, but science, a uniquely human endeavour that should be available, and therefore comprehensible, to all.

This, again, shouldn’t be an abstract point. For instance, why is the NHS both good and popular? Because, amongst other things, it distributes the products of scientific knowledge to all who need them. The relative success of the initial vaccination campaign here was built out of this public trust and understanding. But this means future mass vaccination drives shouldn’t be merely crude campaigns to jab as many arms as possible, but also, campaigns for education in vaccination and in public health. Vaccination drives, in other words, should categorically not involve the compulsion to vaccinate, but instead develop from the process of education as to why vaccinations should happen.

If we as socialists say we want mass vaccination campaigns – or indeed any other significant public health intervention – we must also say that this must be a campaign of mass education, delivered at the level that has the most contact with people in their daily lives. 

No effective public education campaign could be delivered with the finger-wagging and sneering that is beloved by a very specific kind of Twitter liberal. It instead must be developed on the ground, in close contact with schools, local government and other trusted institutions rooted in their communities. The fact that the government has cut 24% of public health funding in the last five years is a disaster from this point of view, and this funding must be restored as a matter of urgency. 

Developing a genuinely public science would also mean squeezing out the private interests that have swarmed around government largesse over the last 18 months. Science is our common treasury, an inheritance for all humanity; it should not be an excuse for profiteering. Intellectual property laws are a barrier to the development and application of science and, for critical technologies like Covid-19 vaccinations, should be scrapped; a demand so unradical that both Gordon Brown and the current US president have found time to make it, but which needs to be backed up with hard investments in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines across the Global South. Selling off government-funded vaccine manufacturing plants – which the government is currently doing – is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

A public science approach would also mean backing the limited and proportional response of a mask mandate, against assorted howling man-babies. A piece of cloth on your face is a proven, medically effective restraint on virus transmission with no consequences for your personal privacy or security – the precise opposite, for example, of vaccine passports. These two things are not the same, and there is no reason to treat them as the same. Nuance will matter more in the future.

Finally, the left needs to rediscover its anti-authoritarian roots. The political challenges over the coming years are likely to be far more centred on the extension and misuse of the government’s powers than in the last decade, and powers introduced in the guise of protecting public health will be a part of that. There is an opportunity to knit together a political coalition that pulls in all those on the wrong side of the new authoritarianism. But for the left to succeed in taking this opportunity, it needs to start making its opposition far clearer.

James Meadway is an economist.

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