Covid-19 – try again, fail again, but some people would have made it worse

A couple of weeks ago the Irish Government announced a new plan to deal with Covid-19.  It consisted of five levels that were to signal the approach everyone should take to social distancing and the restrictions the Government would impose.  These guidelines and restrictions would follow from the perceived level of threat from the virus.

Immediately however Dublin fell into level two and a half and quickly moved to three and a bit, though the trajectory of the infection had hardly changed.  Far from the new plan setting out discrete levels of intervention and expected behaviour, the expected behaviours and interventions were not consistent with the plan, or the plan was not consistent with the interventions.  Either way the plan immediately became discredited.

But this is the least of the problems with it.

The major problem is the idea that the virus can be locked away in lockdown, then we can ease lockdown and the virus doesn’t return.  No one believes this.  Yet the consistent approach now would be to reintroduce lockdown.  But this isn’t going to happen.  Yet if it’s not going to happen, if it’s not justified now, what justified it in the first place?

One argument was to ‘flatten the curve’.  In other words, reduce the strain on the health system and prepare for an elongated engagement with the virus based on an expected ‘second wave’.  The problem with this is that the health services have less resources immediately available to it than before, with the ending of sequestration of private hospitals, and there has been no satisfactory expansion of the test and trace system over the summer.

We are promised a planned expansion of health services but these cannot be conjured up in weeks or months and there can be no assurance that what we will get is not a reduction in normal critical care to permit less critical, but now more politically important, Covid treatment. The alternative potential outcome is that Covid-19 is not as threatening this time, but this hardly accords with the Government message.

But this isn’t the only problem, because it is becoming clear that a hoax is being perpetrated and it isn’t the crazy one from the deranged far right – that Covid-19 doesn’t exist.  The last week has revealed that, according to Prof Philip Nolan of the National Public Health Emergency Team, public health doctors ‘don’t need to know” where someone got the disease. “We don’t have the time or resources to pursue this academic exercise” he said.  Which rather makes a mockery of the whole plan, based on isolating the virus.  As this blog has said repeatedly – it’s not the virus that is being isolated but the people.

So if knowing where infections spread is not important how do they then know where to limit activity, where to shut up and for how long?  Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost on the basis of an guesses and assumptions paraded as expert evidence-based public health practice.

This might be considered the most scandalous admission but it isn’t.  Instead, that award goes to the admission that, as infection rises among the older population, the Health Services Executive chief clinical officer states that it is not possible to keep nursing homes and other congregated older settings completely immune from a virus spreading through the rest of society.  Over half of those who have so far died did so in these settings but the Government can’t promise there won’t be some sort of repeat.

It is well known that younger people have relatively, and absolutely, little to worry from catching the virus unless they have a relevant underlying health problem, yet it appears that they have to be locked-down to protect those really at significant risk.  Everyone has to be controlled to control the risk to those really threatened.  But is it easier to protect everyone from a virus that is widespread or a minority of the vulnerable?  Well, how did the original more restrictive lockdown go?

The Government approach attempts to scare everyone, with some evidence of success, when this is not credible.  And this lack of credibility has infected the population, especially the young, who seem perfectly aware that they are not significantly at risk.  This discredits those public health messages that really are important and it detracts from mobilising the majority to realise the need for them to assist in the protection of the vulnerable.  For the latter, if everyone is threatened and so many are ignoring or resentful at the advice and restrictions being introduced, why should their responses be different?

More and more credible arguments against the current approach are being reported but the longer the mistaken strategy continues the more difficult it is for the Government to change tack, even as the end of the process seems further and further away.  If it did it might have to admit to an enormous series of mistakes we will have to pay for, and for a very long time.  In the meantime, continuation of the current approach leads to inconsistent and contradictory advice and measures that arise because the strategy is mistaken.

The bill for this has been paid for in direct deaths from the virus, from the absence of treatment for other critical conditions, from the effects of social dislocation and isolation and from the massive economic cost that will be paid for in health terms as well as in reduced living standards and life chances. Here, it will be predominantly the young who will be most affected.  The current approach is not one that should divide generations but one that should unite them.  The higher incidence of Covid in poorer areas with greater prevalence of the underlying conditions that entail heightened risk makes it a class issue as well.

All the more reason then to note that the current attitude of the left is a disaster.  Far from seeking to base itself on understanding what is going on, seeking an effective alternative and challenging the draconian restrictions on democratic rights.  Far from highlighting the enormous cost that will be imposed on working people, it has supported the Government, except it wants greater restriction and calling for more money from the Government as if it is going to pay the enormous bill.

Every day, the press and media declare that the Government will pay this wage subsidy or that pandemic unemployment benefit, provide this support to small and large business and that tax exemption.  The left appears either to assume that money will simply be printed so it is considered more or less costless, or no thought is given to it at all.  But of course, the Government will not pay out of its own pocket because the pocket of the Government is the pockets of working people.  The money spent will be borrowed and working people will pay back the debt.  How could this be a surprise – the left is always going on about how unfair the taxation system is but here it is proposing to unnecessarily make the potential burden so much greater.

Some on the left might entertain the idea that printing money will work, but money is a claim on the real resources of society, the resources created by the labour of the working class, and only this labour creates these resources. Once this is understood, as it is supposed to be by Marxists, it is abundantly clear that paying people money for closing the place that they work in, or the business that they own, will not create any additional resources but will create an enormous financial bill that will have to be repaid.

I had a discussion on Facebook with a contributor who argued that since capital created the mess it can pay for it and workers should make sure that it does.  I argued that if all these payments were for our own good we were on weak ground rejecting paying the cost, regardless of who was to blame.  Workers in Ireland have found it hard to fight against their tax burden in the past, with Ireland having a history of such resistance going back to the 1970s.  The burden imposed by the financial crisis wrought by the Celtic Tiger crash doesn’t bode well for further imposition and confidence in successful resistance.  It makes no sense to make this challenge so much greater if we can prevent it.

Were we really able to get capital to pay the enormous bill coming we would either have replaced it, or capitalism would no longer be the exploiter of the working class socialists have always claimed.

Richard Boyd Barrett TD for People Before Profit admits new public health restrictions planned for Dublin were “sadly necessary” given a rapidly rising infection rate but that they “reflect a failing and incoherent strategy.”

“The government’s failure to plan for and resource permanent capacity building in key areas such as test and trace, health and ICU capacity, school infrastructure and teacher numbers is now coming back to bite us all with a vengeance.”

Many of the issues raised in this statement are correct, but they do not amount to a strategy that will work and have all the defects just presented, because essentially it is built upon the same strategy as the Government’s.  It is but a supercharged version of Kier Starmer in Britain, who also supports the Tory Government’s strategy but simply wants it implemented competently.

From the social democrats of Labour to the ‘Marxists’ of People before Profit and others, the left has failed.  Failed on the two biggest issues facing Irish (and British) workers today – Covid-19 and Brexit.  Both have been a disaster for workers and both are now supported by major parts of the left, with the caveat that they support the most stringent version of both – greater restrictions on free movement and a more complete Brexit.

This is a left that is seriously lost; if its programme had actually been followed, including an Irish exit – Irexit – we really would be facing disaster.

The Covid-19 politics of Ireland and Britain

Just over a month ago my wife and I visited my daughter, her boyfriend, and my sister in Glasgow and had dinner in my sister’s house.  Two weeks later this would not have been possible, I would have been breaking the Covid regulations; in fact, my daughter and sister couldn’t have done it together even without us. They could, however, have met together in the pub, which of course doesn’t make much sense, as this Scottish blogger argued.

This week new restrictions were introduced in the North of Ireland, and even more stringent ones in Belfast and a number of other areas, making breaking of the regulations inevitable.  This has led to the targeting of students returning to University and partying in the Holyland area.  As some students have pointed out – we can’t party in numbers in our houses or on the street but we can all go to the Hatfield bar and ‘socially distance’.

When more restrictions were to be introduced by the Government in Dublin it was also stated that it would be looking at opening ‘wet’ pubs (that don’t serve food).  Later it suffered complete derision by asking publicans to keep receipts showing that punters had indeed ordered a panini costing at least €9 when they had bought their pint of Guinness.

This week it unveiled a new strategy that had five levels of restrictions, leaving Dublin to fall into level two and a half!  The Health Minister took sick on the day of the launch and had to isolate, causing the rest of Cabinet to briefly join him.  Since all these rules and regulations are based on assigning individual responsibility for avoiding the virus it wasn’t a good look.

In all these jurisdictions the number six has become a new guideline for people meeting up, the number to be made up – or not made up – of children and belonging to one, two or three households, sometimes differing between indoors and outdoors.  Overall however the differences seem less and less important.

The timing and severity of lockdown has proved no protection as infection rates increase in Dublin, Belfast and Glasgow while various parts of England are subject to greater restrictions every week.  In all places the threats of a second wave reveal the failure of the measures to deal with the first, and in all of them, despite its much-vaunted role, the test and trace systems are not operating as the should.  The readiness of the health services is unclear, but only in so far as the extent of new wave of infection is unclear, otherwise the inadequacies of each health service is perfectly clear.

Such inadequacies were the subject of a column in the Belfast paper ‘The Irish News’, in which was noted the absence of protest at the local NHS having almost closed down.  The lockdown has led to much reduced access and reduced capacity, on top of waiting lists much worse than those in Britain.  It has been justified in terms of keeping Covid out of hospitals and preparing for the second wave but deaths have now arisen in two hospitals – so it isn’t working.  In the South, the number of people screened for cancer was down 60 per cent in the first six months of 2020 compared to the previous year and the already unprecedented waiting lists have increased.

The so-called second wave was to be addressed by much improved test and tracing systems.  Unfortunately, the system in England is reported to be collapsing and the Irish one is nowhere near what was projected as necessary in April.  While still considering itself better than the British, the Irish are testing 1.8 per thousand people while the UK is doing 2.43, and has been achieving this only by using scarce heath care staff to do the testing, meaning they can’t do their day job.  In Scotland pressure on the system has meant results are taking up to ten days to come through with this reported to be threatening the regime for care workers in elderly persons’ homes.

In all countries extra funding for health services have been announced as if this will quickly address the neglect and austerity these services have suffered for years.  The additional funds are a reiteration, on a much greater scale, of repeated funding for new initiatives that are periodically announced but that rely on recruiting health professionals from other parts of the service, which create problems further back.  It’s as if you can deploy thousands of trained medical, nursing and other professional staff in a matter of weeks or months despite taking years to train them and years to put in place new facilities for them to work in.

The announcement of potential fines of £10,000 in England is many things, but an effective public health measure it is not.  It will discourage compliance with the rules and disaffection with the whole public health campaign.  The call for respect for the law, given the exclusion of Dominic Cummings from its requirements and the threat to break international law over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, is too obviously hypocritical to be acceptable.  The result will be intensification of blame on the general population for the Government’s failures.

Irish public health officials have warned of an increase in cases in the over-75s, the most vulnerable group and those who have suffered the greatest loss.  The argument advanced is that the whole population must suffer increasingly arbitrary and unenforceable rules to protect its most vulnerable section.  But all this achieves is failure to focus on targeted measures that might work in protecting the vulnerable, through steps to support their social distancing, ensure safe care home environments and safe hospital care when they need it.  It is impossible to square the idea of widespread social distancing to protect the vulnerable with the return of schools, colleges and the necessary return to some sort of normal working by many workers.

One noticeable aspect of the approach of all these administrations has been their failure to protect the old, through their being dumped out of hospital into homes without testing or even after testing positive. None of them has made a genuine attempt to investigate and report the lessons of their failure.  The traditional centralisation of power and secrecy in Britain has not been shattered by devolved administrations but reproduced.  The Scottish and Stormont regimes show exactly the same tendencies to secrecy, centralisation and lack of accountability.  They also show exactly the same instincts to authoritarian measures that substitute for an effective policy that goes beyond nationalist slogans.

Statistics are still paraded as proof of one jurisdiction being more successful than the other although this is fraught with difficulties and assumes that the statistics reflect the impact of respective Government measures: that it is the virus that is being controlled for either better or worse, rather than the virus determining mistaken responses to it, which is more obviously the case.

Lockdowns have been relaxed in each and the virus has flared up again, alongside dire warnings from Governments and their official advisors.  In circumstances where many are asymptomatic the possibility of testing and tracing systems identifying the source of every or most infections and then closing them down, even if efficiently carried out, is unlikely.  Not unless we face complete shutdown, which is not going to happen and which is now both too late and impossible to sustain in any case.

Comparisons drawn are always carefully chosen.  Sweden was the comparator not to be followed, except that at the beginning of September the Irish State recorded 30.6 cases per 100,000 while the Swedes reported only 23.4.

On 19 September the death rate for the four parts of the UK were reported below:

Area Deaths Rate per 100,000 population
England 37,076 65.9
Northern Ireland 575 30.4
Scotland 2,505 45.9
Wales 1,603 50.8

https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/deaths

It is clear that England has performed worst and Northern Ireland best.  Scotland has done better than England, and my relatives confirmed reports that the SNP Government is getting credit for this.

Scottish nationalists claim that the dire performance of the Tory Government shows that Scottish independence is justified, and sometimes use comparisons to judge the Scottish performance poorly because of membership of the UK.  So, for example, this blog damns membership because Scotland did not match the performance of some Scandinavian countries. Of course, its comparison at that time excluded Sweden.

So not only do the nationalists get to pick their comparators but they get to pick whether being worse means that Scotland should separate from the UK and being better (especially than the English) also means they should separate.  If these statistics were the product of good Governance one must marvel at the so-far hidden wonders of the Stormont regime in Belfast that some believe works best when it doesn’t work at all, which it frequently doesn’t.

The Irish State in turn has been compared favourably to Northern Ireland, both of which recorded their first cases only two days apart.  Crude mortality rates calculated by two economists, one from the North and one from the South, showed a mortality rate at that point in time of 44.5 per 100,000 in the North but only 35.8 in the South.

They recognise however that the majority of deaths, in what they call the first phase of the pandemic, was of the over-65s, 93.5% between March and June in the South and 92.8% in the North.  They noted that a higher proportion of the population in the North is over 65 – 15.8% compared to 13.9% in the South. Adjusting for the age profile in each jurisdiction produces a mortality rate of 35.6 per 100,000 in the North (if it had the South’s population distribution – the rate in the South itself was 35.8), and the mortality rate in the South using the North’s population distribution would be 45 per 100,000 (the actual rate in the North was 44.5).  So in fact not much different at all.

The following graphs show first, the daily new cases, and the following two graphs the cumulative total cases and death rate per million for a number of different countries.

 
 
 

The first graph shows that there are increased numbers of cases in a number of countries giving rise to the concern about a resurgence.  The second graph however puts this into perspective, that growth in the cumulative number of cases is not at all as high as it was initially or in the first 50 to 100 days.

The third shows that the increase in the number of deaths has slowed even more than cases and the lines in the graph have flattened considerably.  The point is not comparison between countries but the common pattern of reduced growth of both cases and especially deaths over the whole period of the pandemic.  The first graph shows that this is the situation while cases have and may continue to increase in a range of countries.

The first of the following two graphs shows that across the world the number of new cases continues to grow but the second that the number of deaths is not following the same trajectory.  A strategy that assumes the opposite will be increasingly exposed and indefensible.

 
 

Despite claims that Covid-19 and state responses to it are not political issues, it is clear that in every country this is not the case.

Dominic Cummings and his Government are determining the strategy in England; the centralising SNP is doing so in Scotland, and the dysfunctional Executive is doing it in the North of Ireland.  The latest strategy out of Dublin makes explicit that the National Public Health Emergency Team has been downgraded and that decisions will be taken by politicians.  The punitive fines being introduced in England are eminently political and make for potentially violent confrontation.  That Keir Starmer supports them shows only that he will contribute to that coming confrontation.  Maybe he will be looking for his old job back.

There is widespread deflation, if not complete surprise, that the incompetent mess that we are passing through has not led to more precipitate decline in Tory support in opinion polls.  The ‘secret’ of course is the solid nationalist and reactionary support behind Brexit that clings to the Tories in order to deliver the promised new Jerusalem.  The more Johnson fails to deliver the more some will cling.

Considerable responsibility for this must be laid at the door of the Labour Party whose previous leader acted as if a good Brexit was possible, but whose new one has collapsed into more or less criticising that the Tory deal has not been implemented.  The idea that Brexit and its effects must be gotten out of the way, and Labour can then compete more effectively with the Tories afterwards, forgets that the effects of Brexit that have already been severe have only started.

At the moment the British press is full of articles that show that the real opposition to Boris Johnson comes not from the clever lawyer and stupid politician opposite but from those behind him.

This view that there is a good, or at least defensible Brexit, is held even by sections of the left who correctly opposed it in the referendum.  Against all the evidence of its toxic character socialists are asked to unite against the specifically Tory Brexit.  But far from the Tory Brexit being as far away as possible from the Brexit supported by the nationalist left’s Lexit, the Johnson version is exactly what they have demanded.  There is no reason for these people to unite against a Tory Brexit with those socialists who supported Remain and there is no reason for the latter to renounce total opposition to Brexit when its every step is a disaster.

The other opposition comes from the nationalists of the SNP, which have always employed English nationalism to strengthen their own and are now successfully hiding their own failures over Covid by pointing to the worse failures down south.  The difference is mainly presentational, with Sturgeon substituting seriousness for bombastic incoherence.  It is noticeable that the growth in support for separation appears not to be based on any confidence that things will be so much better but that it couldn’t be worse.

Scottish nationalism appeared in a ‘Yes’ campaign to offer some positive solution to Scottish workers’ problems even if the experience of the SNP Government provided no grounds for such a view.  The movement for it appeared more progressive than the objective itself, at least to those inside it.  Its renewed support is based on a hope and a prayer that somehow an ‘independent’ capitalist Scotland, by virtue of this alone, will solve problems.

The North of Ireland shows the complete bankruptcy of nationalism.  Just as England has an opposition that wants Government policy implemented (competently), and Scotland has a divided and discredited one, the regime in the North of Ireland can’t afford to have an opposition at all.  In Ireland the governing parties may have to accept that the current opposition is not really an opposition and will have at some point to be trusted.

Governing parties and States have gotten accustomed to exercising control and issuing dire warnings tempered only by the knowledge that a new lockdown is unaffordable and unenforceable without money.  Only the far-right has so far opposed the restrictions on civil liberties while pushing insane conspiracy theories and dangerous health edicts.

The justification for these restrictions reduces with every case that does not result in a death, while deaths of the vulnerable are their responsibility.  A danger is that the right leverages legitimate opposition to repression of civil rights into acceptance or tolerance of other reactionary parts of its programme.  Passivity and acceptance of the state’s increasingly unjustified repressive public health measures facilitates development of this possibility and does nothing to prepare workers for the disaster of a no-deal Brexit or, more likely, a Brexit sealed with a rotten deal.

The shared anti-Covid strategy of these Governments appears increasingly at odds with reality and is generating indifference and resentment.  Socialists need an alternative view of the pandemic rooted in observable fact, one that avoids any support for undemocratic measures or calls for more restrictive lockdown. We also need to renew opposition to Brexit and expose its effects while seeking to draw attention to the bursting of its illusions.  On their own, Covid-19 and Brexit would be a major threat, together the effect is multiplied.  But opposition requires some coherent view of what is happening.