WITH the EU mooting sweeping travel bans, airlines asking staff to agree to unpaid leave and shops and restaurants closing their doors, it becomes clearer by the day that the coronavirus pandemic will cause social and economic disruption on a scale not seen for decades.
It is equally clear that we cannot look to a lead from government. Boris Johnson has taken an almost uniquely irresponsible attitude to the crisis.
As the Communist Party of Ireland points out in a statement the Morning Star runs tomorrow, the available evidence tends to contradict official faith in developing “herd immunity” by allowing this deadly disease to spread.
Even if it did not, No 10’s strategy seems to wilfully ignore highly successful attempts to contain covid-19 in its country of origin, China — no doubt because these involved departures from “business as usual” that affect profits.
That included much more than the quarantining of Hubei province, though with its population of nearly 60 million that itself was a huge task.
It also incorporated a massive medical effort that involved the rapid construction of new hospitals as well as government assistance with essential private travel (as public transport was shut down), food deliveries, extended public holidays and packages of tax cuts and special loans to stop businesses laying off staff to cope with reduced income.
The effectiveness of these steps is generally measured by the sharp decline in new cases of covid-19 in China — with the country now more worried about the virus being reintroduced from abroad than it is about new domestic cases, and sending medical teams to Europe to assist hard-hit countries such as Italy and Spain.
But it is also worth noting that the fatality rate from covid-19 infections varies dramatically. In Italy, a mortality rate of 7 per cent is almost double China’s — an indication of the country’s slower response and lack of medical supplies and acute beds.
Britain has half the intensive care beds per capita of Italy. NHS England admits capacity needs to more than double.
With Public Health England mooting a “realistic worst-case scenario” that involves four in five British people catching the disease, we are looking at over 50 million infections and a mortality rate that could well be higher than Italy’s.
At the same time, an overstretched and understaffed NHS that is forced to delay treatments and government advice to the elderly to self-isolate without a corresponding emphasis on how they are to be supported will mean an increase in non-coronavirus-related deaths.
This nightmare scenario can be mitigated, but doing so will require a tremendous effort.
The public outcry from everyone from trade unions to many employers is already having its effect. The government has been embarrassed into holding an emergency Cobra meeting on protecting the most vulnerable.
Further political pressure from Labour, the left and the labour movement, directed at town halls and MPs as well as at central government, is needed.
The proliferation of local self-help groups and support networks demonstrates that we do not need to wait for Johnson before organising to protect our communities.
In 1940 citizens organised by the Communist Party forced open London Underground stations for use as air raid shelters during the Blitz, when British authorities’ totally inadequate planning for the long-predicted bombardment was laid bare.
In the same vein the political left — especially the mass-membership Labour Party and the locally rooted trades councils — has a role to play in using its existing networks to help organise mutual aid and advice across the country, as we are already seeing from pioneers like Benton branch of North Tyneside CLP.
This crisis is exposing the barbarism of a society structured to maximise profit for a few rather than take care of everyone’s needs.
A government indifferent to the point of callousness puts the onus of meeting the challenge onto ourselves. In the process we can begin to build a better future.
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