You would never have guessed from mainstream media coverage. Listening to Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC, you would assume Johnson’s U-turn on a national lockdown for England was based on ‘scientific advice’.
The hidden history is that the Tories faced a growing revolt from below – from education unions, concerned parents, and local councils. The scientific advice – the reputable scientific advice anyway – had not changed: that we needed a national lockdown to push transmission close to zero; and that we needed an effective public system of find, test, trace, isolate, and support in place to deal with outbreaks after lockdown. What had changed was the resistance.
Why didn’t Kuenssberg do her job and report the facts behind the headlines? Why didn’t she do a Google search on life outside the Westminster bubble? Why didn’t she report that 15,000 teachers have joined the NEU? Why didn’t she report that 100,000 people had attended an NEU online meeting to explain the union’s school closure policy? Why didn’t she report that 250,000 people had signed the union’s online petition?
Nor would you learn – from mainstream BBC news ‘reporting’ (is that the right word?) – just how ‘world-beating’ Britain’s infection rate and death toll have been. You might assume that the whole world is grappling with a pandemic that is out of control; that we are ‘all in it together’. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In Vietnam – a poor country but one with a deep-rooted public healthcare system – total infections have been 1,504, total deaths 35, and the new infection rate is 0. In New Zealand, its total infections are 2,186, total deaths 25, new infections 0. There are many other examples like this.
The global totals – currently, 85 million infections in all, almost two million deaths, and new cases running at more than half a million a day – are heavily skewed on a country-by-country basis, with right-wing, pro-corporate neoliberal regimes presiding over disproportion levels of infection and death.
Covid-19 is not an act of God, a freak of Nature, or a Chinese conspiracy. It is the unintended consequence – another ‘externality’ like climate change, air pollution, and plastic waste – of a globalised capitalist system that is out of control. It has been predicted for a quarter of a century by concerned scientists aware of the implications as agribusiness destroys natural wilderness, builds vast new industrial breeding complexes, fosters the development of mega-slum labour reserves, and operates global ‘just-in-time’ supply chains.
We are allowing the system – a corporate capitalist system that enriches a tiny minority at the expense of the rest of the humanity and the world’s ecosystems – to create new types of deadly disease. And we are allowing right-wing regimes to cut back and privatise essential public healthcare infrastructures, so that collective defences are down when new pathogens emerge.
The Johnson government, in these terms, is world-class. Ten years of Tory cuts and privatisation have run down the NHS. Brexit has made a substantial contribution to staffing shortfalls of 40,000 in nursing and 100,000 in the care sector. And that is before we turn the spotlight on how his third-rate regime of public-school boys and corporate spivs has mishandled the pandemic.
They locked down too late. They sent infected people into the care homes. They lifted lockdown too soon. They handed contracts for PPE and Test and Trace to profiteers and friends of Tory ministers. They allowed the second surge to get a grip and created conditions for the emergence and spread of a new strain. When they acted again, it was too little, too late, with campuses and schools continuing to function as premier transmission centres. They threatened legal action against councils that wanted stricter anti-Covid precautions. And all the time, they lied and lied and lied.
But is it my imagination or is something stirring in the depths of society? Are there straws in the wind? Is the mood inside the British working class – the 85% or more of us who are workers, not bosses or managers – changing in the context of the pandemic?
The capitalist system created the Covid-19 virus. The neoliberal regimes have enabled it to flourish. The political Right – with its ‘free-market’ ideology, its competitive individualism, its hatred of the public sector, its callous indifference to the disadvantaged, its anti-migrant racism – has nothing to say of any relevance to the crisis.
The pandemic plays to the priorities of the political Left. We favour public service, social compassion, community support. Johnson says ‘all in it together’ and it is fake, another lie, another whitewashing of the corrupt crony capitalism that has characterised his handling of the disaster. But when we talk about the need for collective action, we mean it; and this – not reactionary rubbish about ‘enterprise’ and ‘strivers’ – connects with the instincts of millions of ordinary, decent, everyday people confronting a deadly disease.
The massive response to the union campaign may be one measure of a new mood. The surge of support for the NHS workers, care-home staff, and other essential workers – the majority (though by no means all) in the public sector – may be another.
The fact that my partner, a teaching assistant in a local school, told her headteacher – before Johnson’s U-turn – that she would be following her union UNISON’s advice not to go in; the fact that she knew of at least one other local teaching assistant who had done the same; the fact that another teaching assistant has asked her whether she should join the union; the fact that staff WhatsApp accounts are full of reposted anti-Tory jokes; these and a million other subterranean signals may mean that something is stirring in the depths of the British working class.
Let us hope so. Because without radical change, this pandemic will be followed by others, perhaps more deadly. Because without radical change, we face economic disaster, social collapse, and climate catastrophe. A system based on unbridled corporate power and grotesque greed at the top has become an existential question for humanity and the planet. There must be no return to neoliberal normal. We must prepare to fight for a new, better, healthier, more civilised world.
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